MAXWELL — The water dribbling from the tank in the back of David Wingo’s pickup shows how hard drought has hit the village of Maxwell. There’s not enough water in Maxwell’s system to irrigate the modest landscaping in front of the trim white United Methodist Church, so Wingo drove a tank of water up from neighboring Springer to do the job. “We’re just trying to keep these trees,” Wingo said as he moved the hose.
Located across Interstate 25 from the Canadian River, the northeast New Mexico community of Maxwell is home to 254 people, a single gas station, a much beloved K-12 school and arguably the most serious drought-driven municipal water supply problem in the state of New Mexico.
Inside the United Methodist Church, a row of store-bought gallon water jugs for use by parishioners in need lines a closet, after a mid-February “boil water advisory” from the New Mexico Environment Department. There is so little water flowing through Maxwell’s pipes right now that state regulators are concerned about the possible buildup of contaminants.
People here think twice about flushing, or showering, and drive 27 miles to the laundromat in Raton to wash their clothes.
Two miles east of town, the village’s water wells are struggling. After repair work, three wells came back on line in late February, and the resulting trickle Wingo demonstrated coming out of the tap in the church actually counts as an improvement.
But Mayor Kay Pinkston knows that’s just a stop-gap measure, making it only marginally easier to coax a bit of water out of an aquifer that is simply running dry.
“If we don’t get some moisture, we’ll still be in trouble,” Pinkston said as she sat in Maxwell’s tiny village hall. As she spoke, a flurry of snow blew down Maxwell Avenue through the center of town, but like most of the storms here lately, it was barely enough to wet the ground.
Maxwell, in the heart of the farm and ranch country of northeastern New Mexico, is named after Lucien Maxwell, a settler who in the 1800s acquired what was reputed to be the largest single landholding in what is now the United States. Today, the village serves as an economic center for the local farming community — when there’s water to farm, Pinkston said.
By some measures, drought has gripped this part of New Mexico for more than a decade. The last really wet year on the Canadian River was 1999, according to Roberta Ball of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Ever since then, we’ve had below normal runoff,” she said.
Current flow on the Canadian was barely enough to measure, just 7 percent of normal for this time of year.
Maxwell has struggled with water problems for a decade, Pinkston said. But things have gotten worse in the last two years, which have been, not coincidentally, the warmest and driest two-year stretch in northeast New Mexico since record-keeping began more than a century ago.
Maxwell’s water comes from shallow wells, drawing from an aquifer along a gully fed by runoff from nearby Eagle Tail and Tinaja mountains, which rise nearly 2,000 feet from the plains northeast of town.
Crews from Mack’s Drilling and Well Service in Raton have been refurbishing the wells, which go down just 40 feet. Residents and communities that have access to deeper aquifers have been able to weather the drought, said Wes Mack, the driller working to help Maxwell with its problems. But the shallow aquifers like the one Maxwell uses, responding quickly to drought conditions, are a different story.
“In the shallower wells, the water table is not just dropping, it is disappearing like the grass on the surface,” Mack said.
The problem, Mack explained, is that in many areas there’s no deep aquifer to use as an alternative, “due to the fact that there is not any known deeper water producing formations in those areas.”
Pinkston is hoping for a state appropriation to fund a deeper well in a search for a more reliable water supply for the village, but she acknowledged that no one knows if there is water down there to find.
Maxwell’s problems extend beyond the village water supply to the surrounding farm country, which is the area’s primary economic engine. On a drive through barren, dry farmland, Pinkston pointed to land that should have dry winter grass on it for the cattle to eat.
“There should be grass out there, 8 to 12 inches tall,” said Pinkston, a former farmer herself.
A field that would usually hold 6-inch-tall winter wheat at this time of year was plowed under. “There is no water,” she said, “no farming.”
Asked about the burden she bears in trying to find the water to keep her village alive, Pinkston chafed at the word “burden.” What would she call it? “A responsibility,” she said.
Whatever the word, Pinkston is clear about what is at stake.
“People would just have to move if there’s no water,” she said. “We’d be a ghost town.”