MAGDALENA – You turn on the tap; the water comes out. That’s how it goes in modern-day America.
When you turn on the tap and nothing comes out, and it happens to you and all of your neighbors, that shakes up a town.
Especially when you live in the desert. And it’s summer. And it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to rain again.
The water situation here in Magdalena has been as fickle as the weather since June 5, when the level in the municipal water well fell an inch below the pump intake, cutting off water service to the 1,000 or so people who live in his little village between Socorro and the Plains of San Agustin.
That crisis lasted a couple of long, fretful days. In the following weeks, some parts of town have gotten good water pressure back, some parts have had only a trickle and a few places have had no water for more than a week.
What that means on the streets of Magdalena is this:
You can order a green chile cheeseburger at the Magdalena Cafe, but you can’t use the facilities. A sign on the bathroom door announces the restrooms are closed. Bright red portable toilets, in pairs, dot the town.
The coin laundry is closed and doing laundry at home is not permitted. The nearest laundromats are in Socorro, 25 miles away. That’s where the water store is, too, where people are filling up jugs and barrels.
Showers are limited to two minutes, although former military men like Dave Limbert can get it done in one minute. Dave donates his extra minute in the shower to his wife.
The village backs up to the Magdalena Mountains and its water tanks sit up in the foothills. Water flows downhill, so houses the farthest from the tanks tend to get the best water pressure. Those at the top suffer the most.
Limbert lives at Third and Pine. “Generally, we get water,” he told me. “Quite often, it’s very little at a time. Sometimes, it’s about half of normal pressure. Sometimes, we get a dribble.”
The town marshal and his lone deputy, age 82, have been delivering cases of bottled water to the elderly and people who have trouble getting around. Donald Lehew, who couldn’t remember his exact age but assured me he is an old-timer, said he finds three cases of water bottles on his front porch every few days.
At the fire station, plastic bottles of water are free to pick up but rationed. Volunteer Don Wiltshire was using a stretcher from a rescue unit to wheel a couple of cases out to Brad and Mary Wayt, who had their pickup waiting.
Brad and Mary live up the hill at Seventh and Spruce, and their house was dry for more than a week. They went to stay with their daughter in Albuquerque until the crisis passed.
Since returning, they’ve been taking all the water conservation tips to heart – doing dishes in a pan, keeping a bucket in the shower and using the gray water for the garden, which is suffering.
Some people are showering only every few days, and carefully assessing their fellow townsfolk for signs of excessive bathing. In Magdalena, squeaky clean is nothing to brag about these days.
“It’s getting pretty gnarly in town,” Wiltshire told me. “The good news is that we haven’t been swept away by a wave of plague and disease.”
Making my way around town, I heard differing opinions on what caused the water crisis. One point of view is that years of extreme drought have dropped the water table and that there’s nothing local officials could have done to see it coming. The differing point of view holds that public officials knew or should have known trouble was coming and dropped the ball on taking care of Magdalena’s water wells or making plans to drill a new one.
I saw pamphlets encouraging people to conserve water and tip sheets to help in that regard: “Do not flush toilets unless necessary.” “Only do laundry when your laundry basket is full.”
Bryan Baca, an automotive teacher at Magdalena High School, has put his handyman skills to work turning his family’s home into a comfortable water-wise oasis.
He’s been filling up a 250-gallon tank from his sister’s private well outside town and using it to water his trees and to flush toilets. Long soaks are possible in his backyard hot tub, which was already full when the municipal well came up short.
For showers, Baca made sure his family doesn’t have to follow the village guidelines of two minutes. Baca set up a car battery and a pump and attached it to a garden hose to pull his sister’s well water into an outdoor shower he fashioned from some spare pieces of steel and some shower curtains. He rigged it to a tankless water heater and a propane tank and, voilà, long hot showers by starlight.
Baca said the water crisis has been a learning experience. He realized how much water he uses on his trees and how easy it is to capture a little of the dishwater.
“I never knew how much water I used,” Baca said. “And half of it is outside just watering the trees.”
A few people in town told me they suspect the crisis will pass and Magdalenans will go right back to their water-wasting ways. But more said they thought these lessons would linger long after the taps start flowing regularly again.
Wiltshire, handing out bottles of water at the fire station, said he’s now a believer in living more in tune with drought.
“This has really slapped us in the head about what conservation should have been like in the first place,” Wiltshire said. “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to half-hour showers.”