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N.M. Drought: Worst 2 Years in Decades

Feeding dairy cattle at H.A.W. Farms, south of Rio Communities off highway 47, photographed on Friday June 1, 2012.  (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
Feeding dairy cattle at H.A.W. Farms, south of Rio Communities off highway 47, photographed on Friday June 1, 2012. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
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Cattle ranchers are selling off their herds, and New Mexico’s supply of irrigation water for summer crops is running low as the state suffers its worst two-year drought since the 1950s.

Ranchers have little or no range grass, and feed costs are soaring as drought drives up demand and pushes down supply, leaving ranchers little choice but to sell.

“Everyone that I know has reduced their herd,” said Charlie Rogers, who runs the weekly Clovis Livestock Auction on the state’s eastern plains.

The first six months of 2012 were the 10th-driest in New Mexico history, and the same stretch in 2011 was the driest in the state’s history, according to Ed Polasko at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

The state’s reservoirs are dropping, with Elephant Butte in southern New Mexico at less than 10 percent of capacity and northern New Mexico reservoirs quickly being drained of the water used for crops from Cochiti to Socorro.

“It’s going down fast,” said David Gensler, who manages water for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Gensler said his agency is likely to run out of water reserves by mid-August. After that, farmers will have to depend on meager natural flows to water their crops, with pueblo farmers having first priority under state law.

Taken together, the last 24 months have been the driest two-year stretch in New Mexico since the drought of the 1950s, according to records kept by the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nev.

Warm temperatures are compounding the problem. The past two years have been the warmest in recorded history in New Mexico, more than a degree Fahrenheit hotter than the 1950s, according to Climate Center data.

With Elephant Butte nearly empty, farmers on the lower Rio Grande have had to turn to groundwater pumping to keep their crops alive, said Phil King, a New Mexico State University professor and consultant to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. But that is expensive, and some farmers have trouble with high levels of salt in the groundwater, King said.

When full, Elephant Butte Reservoir holds 2 million acre-feet of water. It’s currently holding 193,000 acre-feet and is expected to drop to 120,000 acre-feet by the time the irrigation season is over in September, just 6 percent of capacity.

It will take a long time to pay back the Elephant Butte deficit created by years of drought, said Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “That would take years of good snowpack, back to back to back, to get that back to 2 million,” Abeyta said during a meeting Tuesday of the state-federal Drought Monitoring Working Group.

Elephant Butte was full or nearly full for much of the 1980s and ’90s, but began dropping in the last decade, steadily reducing irrigation supplies available to downstream farmers.

Summer rains are helping a little, officials say, but not a lot. Much of the state’s cattle rangeland is so battered by multiple years of drought that it will take several years for the grass to return to health, said Les Owen of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “The rangeland in New Mexico is pretty resilient, but it’s been hit pretty hard,” Owen said.

If there is a bright spot, it is in the forecast for coming months.

Federal forecasters last week said they expect wetter than average weather over Arizona and parts of New Mexico over the next few months. Forecasters say there are above-average chances the Southwest could see a wet fall as a result of an increase in tropical storms in the eastern Pacific. And there are signs an El NiƱo is developing in the Pacific Ocean, a climate pattern that tilts the odds to wetter weather in New Mexico and the Southwest for the coming winter.

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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