Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The images have been striking.
Miles of the Rio Grande, the largest and most vital waterway in New Mexico, show dry, jagged cracks where water used to flow and dead fish strewn about the land.
Much of this area is south of Albuquerque and is the result of a serious drought, which worsens as the year moves along, plaguing nearly all of the state to some degree.
But it’s the far reaches of northern New Mexico that have been hit hardest by drought. The region is currently attempting to cope with the drought’s effects on local bodies of water, agriculture and ecosystems. Now, those effects have begun rippling to some of the state’s largest population centers and when they will end remains unknown.
All of New Mexico is currently facing some level of drought, according to the most recent map produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Forty-two percent of the state is suffering from “severe drought,” while 11% is classified as being in “extreme drought.”
Areas along the New Mexico-Colorado border, from Farmington to Cimarron, are among those facing the most serious drought conditions.
Three months ago, more than half the state had no levels of drought at all. Water and climate scientists say the worsening drought situation is due to a combination of a lackluster monsoon season so far and a short-lived snowpack from last winter in the northern mountains.
“It was just amazing how little water was running through,” said Dave DuBois, state climatologist and director of the New Mexico Climate Center. “A few areas like the Pecos River were above average, but then it melted out and it’s down to very little right now.”
In general, many waterways in northern New Mexico are running at levels far below normal. At a water gauge of the Rio Grande in Embudo, where data has been collected for 89 years, levels are at 188 cubic feet per second, less than half the normal amount.
Large reservoirs, many of which funnel water to Albuquerque and Santa Fe through the San Juan-Chama Project, are also seeing huge declines in their supply of water. Heron, El Vado and Abiquiú lakes are all just above 30% of their average storage amount.
Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, said those reservoirs are key to providing water to urban areas such as Albuquerque, since many hold San Juan-Chama water.
“All of the water is coming out of either Heron Reservoir, El Vado and Abiquiú – and all of those reservoirs are low,” he said, adding 80% of the water pumped south of Los Alamos comes from these points.
Abiquiú Lake Operations Project Manager John Mueller said the lake currently holds around 52,000 acre-feet of water, equal to almost 17 billion gallons. While that’s a lot of water, Mueller said that level is still historically low.
“That’s in comparison to looking back at the past 30 years,” he said.
A ‘new normal’
Nearly all the water in Abiquiú Lake is part of the San Juan-Chama Project, meaning it’s owned by communities within the project. Demand from these communities as the drought worsens has contributed to the significant decline in Abiquiú and other reservoirs.
“One day, we dropped 36 inches in a 24-hour period,” Mueller said. “The owners are calling for it.”
Declining water levels have also begun impacting recreation at Abiquiú Lake, which is a popular fishing and boating spot.
Many of the facilities were built when the lake was much higher, so the Army Corps of Engineers has started planning to adjust ramps and other features to “the new normal,” Mueller said.
Last year, the lake closed temporarily due to blooms of dangerous blue-green algae in the water. Mueller said low water levels most likely contributed to the algae and, with water even lower this year, there’s a risk of it appearing again.
While the drought is having adverse effects on water flowing through the San Juan-Chama Project, smaller waterways in northern New Mexico are also seeing an impact.
Around 700 acequias zig-zag across various portions of northern New Mexico, providing water and irrigation that many farmers rely on. These acequias, many of which date back hundreds of years, have seen their supply of water dwindle as the drought deepens.
Brian Gallegos, acequias liaison for the State Engineer’s Office, said many acequias around the Rio Chama basin have seen their allotment of water decrease. In June, the supply of water ran so low that water was cut off to some of them for a short time.
Gallegos said those working in agriculture have had to bear the brunt of the drought, especially those reliant on acequias.
“A lot of them aren’t aware of the situation,” he said. “They take it for granted there’s going to be ample water for them all the time. Those people are surprised.”
DuBois said he’s seen pictures in Taos County of hay fields going brown, and that many ranchers are having to purchase extra food and water for their livestock.
Problems caused by the drought range from far rural areas to urban centers, with the city of Albuquerque having recently stopped diverting water from the Rio Grande.
The city of Santa Fe, on the other hand, has been able to maintain consistent supply from its three main water sources – the river, the Santa Fe watershed and groundwater wells – albeit with a little help.
Officials at the city’s water division feared levels of the Rio Grande were running too low to operate the Buckman Direct Diversion, which diverts water from the Rio Grande to consumers in Santa Fe and has become one of the city’s main sources of water.
But water management tactics in Albuquerque have kept water levels from dropping further and officials say Buckman can still be used, probably until September.
Praying for rain
Santa Fe has had a tumultuous history with droughts in the past. A drought in 2002 was particularly troublesome as overpumped city wells began failing to supply enough water to the area. Schmidt-Petersen, of the Interstate Stream Commission, said the effect that drought had on Santa Fe can still be seen today.
“All those lawns and big trees died because they had issues physically getting water to people,” he said.
Water Division Director Jesse Roach said the diversity of water sources enables Santa Fe to provide enough water during a drought, even if Buckman has to be shut down at a later time.
Roach said the city could run off its wells, which are used sparingly, for multiple years before water supply becomes a serious concern.
But while the all-important monsoon season kicks off across the state, water and climate scientists still have concerns about New Mexico’s water for the rest of 2020.
In a July 22 meeting of the Drought Mitigation Workgroup, Royce Fontenot of the National Weather Service said all signs point to La Niña conditions, which typically lead to dry, warm winters in New Mexico.
DuBois said a La Niña could negatively impact potential for snowpack in the state’s northern mountains, which is desperately needed to store water for the rest of the year.
“We really need at least an average to above-average snowpack, but the cards are not there for that,” he said.
La Niña could exacerbate problems already evident in acequias and other irrigation systems, worsening already historically bad drought levels, DuBois said, and possibly eliminating the temporary reprieve brought by the monsoons.
This drought, Gallegos said, is already worse than droughts in previous years because it came much earlier in the year. A bad snowpack this winter could bring drought even earlier next year.
DuBois said people can help monitor conditions by joining the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. People in the network purchase rain gauges and report the results to scientists, who verify the data.
Help is especially needed in northern New Mexico, DuBois said, since radar in Albuquerque cannot reach that far due to the Jemez Mountains. It’s these areas most affected by the drought, he said, that have the least amount of information.
What New Mexico really needs, though, is a lot of rain and a good snowpack for next year.
“We can’t just produce water,” Gallegos said. “It’s all about Mother Nature, and prayers and sharing during these limited supply times.”