Aztec, NM in San Juan County. By Kent Kanouse, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

By Daniel J. Chacón, Santa Fe New Mexican | August 13, 2021


A Public Bank of New Mexico can ensure equitable funding for all of New Mexico’s communities and the opportunity to see each of them thrive


New Mexico’s rural-urban divide is getting deeper.

While the state grew by 58,343 people between 2010 and 2020, the influx occurred in more urban areas — at the same time more rural parts of the state saw their populations shrink, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday.

Twenty of New Mexico’s 33 counties posted population declines during the 10-year period, the data shows. Though there were a few exceptions, it was rural New Mexico that experienced the biggest departure of residents, mirroring a nationwide trend as more people flock to cities to live and work.

“I’m sad because we have a rural way of life,” Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen said. “By losing population there, we’re losing that rural way of life.”

The population decrease in the state’s more rural counties “will have a negative adverse impact” on them, Bernalillo County Clerk Linda Stover, president of the New Mexico Association of Counties, said in a statement.

“Bottom line, they will consequently receive less federal funds,” she said.

Of the 13 counties whose populations swelled, Sandoval County, which includes the ever-growing city of Rio Rancho, had the biggest increase with an additional 17,273 people. It was followed by Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties with gains of 13,880 and 10,653 people, respectively.

Coming in a close fourth with 10,328 more people is Doña Ana County, which includes the city of Las Cruces.

Lea and Eddy counties, fueled by the oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin, added 9,728 and 8,485 people, respectively. One of the state’s least populated counties, Colfax, proved an exception. But the population growth was modest, with only 67 additional residents.

The biggest exodus occurred in San Juan County, with a drop of 8,383 people. San Juan, centered by the city of Farmington, is among the most populated counties in the state but has suffered economically in the past decade.

Among the least populated counties, Hidalgo in far southwestern New Mexico, lost the biggest number of people: 716. It was followed by Guadalupe County with 692 residents and Union with 470.

The population growth along the Rio Grande corridor, where some of the state’s biggest cities are located, “makes sense,” said House Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia. He noted those counties include White Sands Missile Range, Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base, Intel, and two of the state’s largest universities.

“There’s some pretty big drivers in those communities,” said Townsend, R-Artesia. “But to me, it further exemplifies the fact that there’s a growing divide between rural and urban New Mexico and areas of agriculture.”

Population growth will occur where jobs are available, Townsend said.

“Where the state will allow and set a platform for industry to grow, people flock to it because there are good jobs,” he said. “I think that was driven home, at least for me, in my read of those population changes.”

The state needs to work harder to increase economic development opportunities in more rural parts of New Mexico, Townsend said.

“We have to start thinking that we can be more than we are today,” he said.

“New Mexicans can make good choices for themselves and their families when given the opportunity. For the most part, government needs to get the hell out of the way and let them do it.”

Bruce Krasnow, a spokesman for the state’s Economic Development Department, said state government is working to increase job opportunities, including in less populated areas.

“We just came from Luna County, where we announced a couple of dozen jobs at this algae farm, which is going to produce omega-3 oils,” he said, adding the county has the highest unemployment rate in the state.

“We’ve been working to create jobs all over the state, and it’s a bigger challenge in rural communities, but we’re doing it,” Krasnow said.

The lack of infrastructure creates some of the biggest challenges, Krasnow said.

“You have to have these industrial areas that have infrastructure, have utilities, have water, have sewer,” he said. “That’s the only way businesses will even look at you.”

While they may not generate a lot of attention, Krasnow said the state does a lot of economic development projects in rural areas. For example, in April the department awarded the city of Moriarty the first-ever rural infrastructure Local Economic Development Act grant to help extend and enhance a water line to the city’s airport, he said.

Still, the urbanization of New Mexico and the nation has serious repercussions on rural residents, from the quality of education to federal funding, said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.

“The concern for me right off the bat is as we see our population become more and more urbanized, you’re going to see — especially in your local elected bodies, our state elected bodies and even our federal elected offices — a disconnect with rural America and the production of our food, fiber and fuel,” said Pirtle, a dairy farmer.

“Europe has already been experiencing this, and it becomes very concerning we’re going to make it harder and harder to grow our food, fiber and fuel here in the United States. And we’ll be depending more and more on other nations, foreign nations, for our food and fuel and fiber.”