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81 percent of New Mexico now in “severe drought”

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — My colleague Robert E. Rosales snapped a remarkable photo earlier today that sums up conditions on the Rio Grande.

That’s the river at San Antonio, at the north end of the Bosque del Apache. For the last week, the US Bureau of Reclamation has been reducing flows of extra water it had been releasing to support Rio Grande silvery minnow spawning. Fish and Wildlife Service teams have been out rescuing minnows and moving them to wetter parts of the river. The rest of the fish – well, you can see from Roberto’s picture.

It’s a visible manifestation of the state’s expanding drought, with 81 percent of the state in severe drought. The river’s in bad shape, with farmers on the lower Rio Grande getting little irrigation water and water managers scrambling to keep water flowing through their systems.

“Things are pretty desperate,” Warren Harkey of Mesilla Park told me Friday. Harkey’s a small fry in the ag world down south, with a couple of dozen pecan trees. He’s got no hope of a crop, and is just hoping at this point to keep the trees alive.

New Mexico’s ranchers must deal with the unpleasant fact that the state has the driest grazing land in the nation. Federal officials have rated 85 percent of the rangeland in “poor” or “very poor” condition, meaning little or no grass for cattle to eat. “We’re topping the nation in bad conditions,” Les Owen of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture said during a meeting Friday of the state’s Drought Monitoring Working Group.

That leaves ranchers with only bad options — buying hay (which is more expensive because of the drought) or selling off cattle.

If there’s a hope, it’s for robust monsoon rains. But even that comes with a price.  More than 300,00 acres, mostly in southern New Mexico, have burned in wildfires and are now vulnerable to flooding during monsoon rains. “If they get a lot of rain real quick, it’s going to bring down a lot of sediment and be a real problem for the folks downstream,” Owen said.

I’ll have a more detailed look at conditions, and the prospects for a turnaround, in Sunday’s paper.