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SF breaches ‘exceptional drought’ status

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Brooklyn Marris, 7, from Albuquerque, collects mussels in the rocks along the Rio Grande near Pilar Friday October 9, 2020. The river has hit record low flows in recent days and these rocks would be under water during more normal water levels. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – The City Different is currently facing some of its worst drought conditions in years, and experts say there’s currently no sign of relief.

A new map released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows Santa Fe and much of the surrounding area in “exceptional drought” conditions, the most severe category the center issues.

It’s the latest development that has seen every part of the state in some form of drought and sent managers scrambling to ensure adequate supply is maintained in large waterways like the Rio Grande.

“This is one of the worst years that we’ve had in a long time, because of how hot and dry the spring was and then how weak the monsoon was,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

The latest map shows Española and Los Alamos are also facing exceptional drought conditions.

In order to determine if an area is in an exceptional drought, scientists will look at the impact on local plant life and crops growing in the area, along with the amount of rainfall.

Record low flows in the Rio Grande have been recorded at the Embudo gauging station. Photo shot Friday.

State Climatologist Dave DuBois told the Journal that the city of Santa Fe typically receives around 13 inches of rain from January to October in a given year. In the last year, only 5 inches of rain have fallen in Santa Fe.

Scientists are forecasting La Niña conditions for the winter, meaning it will be drier than normal, potentially exacerbating the current drought.

Months of little to no rain have taken their toll, he said.

“We’re seeing impacts of that on the forests in northern New Mexico,” DuBois said. “There’s definite impacts on native vegetation at this point from the dryness and temperatures.”

Farmers and ranchers are also being heavily affected. DuBois said ranchers have sent him photos of dying rangeland with no vegetation for their herds to feed on.

As a result, many are choosing to simply sell their herds off completely, he said.

Seven percent of the state is in exceptional drought, including parts of San Juan, Eddy, Grant, and Lea counties. Albuquerque is in “severe drought” – two levels lower than the exceptional drought category.

New Mexico has been in a state of continuous drought for nearly 20 years, but there are signs that current conditions might be even worse than previous years.

The water gauge at the Rio Grande in Embudo, north of Española, is the oldest and first gauge of its kind in the nation and has taken measurements of the area since 1895.

The summer and fall this year saw the Embudo gauge record some its lowest water flows in its history, Fleck said, which puts it in scale with previous droughts in 2011 and 2002.

That’s had a dire effect of water systems downstream. The Buckman Direct Diversion, which supplies the bulk of Santa Fe’s water supply, measures at 280 cubic feet per second (cfs), half of what was flowing through the plant two weeks ago.

The city’s water division director, Jesse Roach, said Buckman would have to shut down if that number dips below 150 cfs, but added that’s difficult to predict because flows have never been that low in Buckman’s nine-year history.

New Mexico gained permission in July from neighboring states to use 12 billion gallons of water in the El Vado Reservoir to offset potential damage to local ecosystems. That water helped steady flows in the Rio Grande over the summer, pushing back a potential closure of the Buckman plant.

However, Roach said that extra water is no longer available, due to unseasonably high demand, and they’ll now have to rely on their normal supply. He said Santa Fe’s diverse sources of water means it can go several years before water supply becomes a serious issue.

Fleck said New Mexico’s largest cities have the resources to handle an extended drought, a luxury often not available to rural communities, who may only have one main source of water. And despite the severity, he said more can be done to notify New Mexicans about the drought.

“I think we’re all pretty distracted by the (COVID-19) pandemic,” he said. “We’re not paying enough attention to it.”


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