New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment. It captivates visitors with its beautiful desert landscapes, its art, and its rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, New Mexico is also rich in something much less desirable: pollution.
Pollution occurs when any kind of harmful substance enters the natural environment. These harmful substances, called pollutants, infect the air, water, and soil that all life depends on. That threatens the health of all living things, from the tiniest insects to the tallest trees—including humans.
Pollution takes many different forms, and New Mexico has a lot of some pollutants but very little of others. A 2023 ranking of all states by U.S. News and World Report illustrates this complexity. New Mexico is rated third-best out of all 50 states for its levels of toxic chemicals. But when it comes to air and water quality, the state ranks third from the bottom.
New Mexico is one of the driest states in the nation, making water a precious resource. However, the state is having only mixed success in protecting it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says most of the state’s waterways are safe for most uses. The water is clean enough for swimming, boating, drinking, and watering crops and animals. But a majority of rivers, streams, and lakes are too polluted to support healthy aquatic life, such as fish.
Pollution is also a problem in underground aquifers, which supply most New Mexicans’ drinking water. The EPA says over 20% of the state’s community water systems, serving 7% of residents, don’t meet federal health standards. And U.S. News notes that New Mexico’s level of drinking water violations is over three times the national average.
According to U.S. News, New Mexico experiences unhealthy air quality 173 days per year—well above the U.S average. Two air pollutants particularly harmful to human health are fine particles and ozone. A 2023 report from the American Lung Association (ALA) finds that New Mexico has unusually high levels of both. Out of all New Mexico counties tested, more than half get failing grades for their ozone levels. For particle pollution – much of which is impacted by western forest fires - the results are better but not great: three B grades, one D, and one F.
The EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) tracks major releases of toxic chemicals in the air, water, and land. On these measures, New Mexico is much cleaner than average. The entire state had only 65 toxic releases in 2021, including 13.8 million pounds on land. Based on total releases per square mile, New Mexico was the sixth cleanest out of 56 states and territories covered.
Pollution can come from natural sources, such as wildfire smoke. However, it’s more often the result of human activities, such as extracting and burning fossil fuels. In New Mexico, both types of pollution are common.
The fossil fuel industry is one of New Mexico’s biggest sources of income. Unfortunately, it’s also one of its biggest polluters. The state’s oil and gas wells leak over 1 million metric tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, each year. In 2023, one fossil fuel company was fined $40 million for illegally burning off huge amounts of excess methane.
Oil and gas sites also release other health-harming compounds such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs react with sunlight to form harmful ozone. Major oil- and gas-producing counties received the worst scores for ozone pollution in the ALA report. One gas producer was responsible for by far the biggest toxic release on the latest TRI—nearly 8 million pounds.
Another New Mexico industry, mining, is a major source of water pollution in the state. Pollution from metals such as copper, lead, nickel, and zinc can sicken or kill aquatic creatures. It also causes a wide variety of illnesses in humans, including cancer.
Mining companies were responsible for two of the state’s five biggest water spills in 2020. The following year, one of those same companies was behind the third-biggest overall toxic release on the TRI.
New Mexico currently uses fossil fuels to produce nearly three-quarters of its electricity. Burning fossil fuels releases numerous pollutants, including fine particles, VOCs, mercury, sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). It’s also one of the state’s biggest sources of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2). And discharges of heated water from power plants cause thermal pollution, which affects over half of New Mexico’s rivers.
Tailpipe emissions from gasoline-burning vehicles are a major source of air pollution all over the country. However, in New Mexico, a disproportionate amount of that pollution comes from large trucks, not cars. Although trucks account for only 10% of all the state’s traffic, they produce 35% of its vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. They’re also responsible for over half of all fine particle pollution and nearly two-thirds of NOx pollution in the state.
According to the EPA, the top pollutants in New Mexico’s waterways are the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Excess nutrients in water lead to overgrowth of algae, which chokes out fish and other aquatic life. Two major sources of nutrient pollution are fertilizer and animal waste. These pollutants can enter the environment from various sources, including:
Two major causes of fine particle pollution in New Mexico are wind-blown dust and smoke from wildfires. Both these pollutants occur naturally, but human-caused climate change is making them worse. Because of global warming, the American Southwest has become hotter and drier, making both dust storms and wildfires more frequent.
New Mexico’s most polluted areas are its two largest cities: Albuquerque in Bernalillo County and Las Cruces in Doña Ana County. Bernalillo County gets a D for particle pollution and an F for ozone from the ALA. It also had 24 toxic releases on the latest TRI, by far the most in the state. Doña Ana County scored two failing grades from the ALA and six toxic releases. Other heavily polluted areas are the oil and gas fields in the state’s northwestern and southeastern corners.
However, not all New Mexico’s cities are highly polluted. Santa Fe County, home to the state capital, gets above-average scores from the ALA and has zero releases on the TRI. The cleanest part of the state is probably Rio Arriba County in the north. It has no toxic releases and is the only county to get a B grade for ozone from the ALA.
Pollution endangers New Mexicans’ health in numerous ways. The state’s high levels of ozone and particle pollution contribute to asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and low birth weight in newborns. Excess metals in drinking water can be toxic, while excess bacteria spread disease.
Pollution also threatens the state’s natural ecosystems. Metal pollution and nutrient pollution harm aquatic life. NOx and SO2 mix with water to form acid rain that harms animals and plants. And greenhouse gases cause climate change that makes the entire state harder to live in. As the planet warms, heat, drought, wildfires, and dust storms are growing more severe. New Mexico’s already scarce water resources are drying up, endangering wildlife and human life all over the state.
These harmful effects aren’t equally distributed across New Mexico. They fall most heavily on people in the most polluted cities and the most polluted neighborhoods. In many cases, this means people of color and those with lower incomes. These groups are more likely to live near power plants, major highways, and polluting industrial plants.
Addressing pollution in these areas is an example of environmental justice (EJ). That’s the principle that environmental laws should protect everyone and that all groups should have a say in creating them.
The federal and state government and various nonprofits are working to clean up pollution in the Land of Enchantment. Their efforts include:
The biggest source of pollution in New Mexico is fossil fuels. That means anything you can do to reduce fossil fuel use, and support alternative renewable energy sources in New Mexico, will help keep the state cleaner. You can use less gasoline by driving less and switching to sustainable transportation, like cycling or mass transit. Or, if you can’t reduce your driving, consider an electric car.
At home, you can save energy by adjusting your thermostat and replacing air conditioning with fans in the summertime. And, simplest of all, you can take advantage of the state’s new community solar program. It’s easy to sign up, and it saves you money and reduces your carbon footprint at the same time.