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When the well runs dry …

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The village of Magdalena in the mountains of west-central New Mexico was dependent on a single well that had, by all accounts, a sketchy maintenance history when the bottom dropped out of the village water supply earlier this month.

When public works director Steven Bailey measured a year ago, the water table sat at 129 feet below the ground, and village workers dropped the well’s pump down to 145 feet, to make sure they had a good solid supply.

The village knew the water table was dropping from its main well, but officials acknowledge they took no steps beyond lowering the pump to ensure a stable supply. “I figured we’d have a little bit of time,” Bailey said.

Magdalena water customers, Bailey acknowledged, did little to reduce their consumption. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we’re not the most conservative of water users.”

Their time ran out during the first week of June, when the pump went dry. By nursing the well, Bailey and his colleagues have some water flowing again, and they are working on alternative wells to back up their system.

New Mexico’s widespread drought has hit small communities hard. Maxwell, in northeast New Mexico, ran out of water completely in the spring, though work to restore its wells has a modest water supply there flowing again. Las Vegas, Ruidoso and Cloudcroft – three communities that have long struggled with meager supplies – have been pushed to the edge again this year, but have so far kept the water flowing, state officials say. Cloudcroft, which according to the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer has long trucked in supplemental water to support its community supply, declared a state of emergency last week, sharply restricting water use in an effort to keep from running dry.

But like Sherlock Holmes’ curious case of the dog that did not bark in the night, a key part of the story of the drought of 2013 in rural New Mexico may be the communities that have not been in the news, because they have not run out of water.

While solid numbers are hard to come by, some in the state’s water management community say they believe there are fewer small community water problems in 2013 than in the last major drought, of 2002-03. With the severity of the current drought, water tables all across New Mexico are dropping. But many communities threatened by drought last time around have upgraded their systems, making them more resilient.

Consider the little Fambrough Mutual Domestic Water Consumers Association, outside Hagerman in southeast New Mexico. In June 2003, the community water system’s managers made a desperate call to the state’s drought hotline. Their pump had gone dry.

A decade later, the system is running at full capacity, with no problems delivering water to its 130 customers. The difference, according to office manager Deborah Huckabee, includes new water rights and two new pumps. “We’re trying to be proactive,” Huckabee said. “We’re trying not to fail.”

There is also the Village of Wagon Mound. The northeast New Mexico village of some 350 people, in the area of the state hardest hit by drought, gets its water from a rare spring, where groundwater flows out onto the surface. This avoids the cost and complication of drilling, but leaves the community vulnerable to decreased flows during the drought.

“The drought has put a pinch in the spring,” said Wagon Mound Mayor Arturo Arguello. So Wagon Mound, working with the New Mexico Environment Department and scientists from New Mexico Tech, are in the midst of a “source water protection program” to upgrade the system that delivers the spring water to the community. They’re also developing a backup groundwater well.

“While the glass is half full, we’re trying to protect what we have,” Arguello said.

Declining aquifers

Most New Mexico communities depend on groundwater to meet municipal needs, and the multiyear drought means rain and snow to replenish aquifers has been lagging.

“Water tables are dropping in a lot of areas of the state,” said Bill Conner, deputy director of the New Mexico Rural Water Association.

All across the state, groundwater pumpers are seeing declining aquifers and decreasing well production, said Dennis McQuillan, head of the New Mexico Environment Department’s Source Water Protection Bureau.

Drillers report an increase in calls from homeowners who rely on their own wells, rather than a community system. “It’s pretty widespread,” said Wes Mack of Mack’s Drilling in Raton. “We’re drilling wells left and right.”

“Even before the drought, we were seeing groundwater depletion,” McQuillan said.

Large communities like Albuquerque, where most New Mexicans live, have big budgets and deep wells to fall back on during a drought. They are generally weathering the current drought well. “The vast majority of our population has adequate water supply,” said John Longworth, chief of the Water Use and Conservation Bureau at the New Mexico Office of State Engineer.

Smaller communities, which generally depend on shallower aquifers and smaller budgets to meet their water needs, are at higher risk when drought hits.

In 2002-03, some 70 small New Mexico communities around the state reported running out of water at some point, according to a 2005 state post-mortem. So far this year, just 10 community water systems have reported water shortages, most notably Magdalena and Maxwell, the two villages hardest hit.

State officials caution against direct comparisons between the 2002-03 numbers and today because reporting processes are different. In 2002-03, the state set up a drought hotline, encouraging communities to report in. No such hotline exists today. As a result, it is possible there are more communities running short, which are not yet showing up in state data, according to Stephanie Stringer of the New Mexico Environment Department.

But anecdotally, officials working on the state’s drought response say community water shortages appear not to be as widespread as a decade ago. In 2002-03, “we were running out of water tanker trucks” to ferry emergency supplies to dried-out communities, said Richard Rose of the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. There’s been no such demand this year, Rose said.

For communities that do run out of water, the Magdalena story is a familiar case study, water managers say – drought pushes problem water systems, often those in rural communities that lack money for expensive system improvements, over the edge.

“Magdalena, arguably, is infrastructure neglect,” Longworth said.

The 2005 report found that such infrastructure neglect was a common denominator in the communities that lost their water during the 2002-03 drought. “Almost all of these ’emergencies’ were in fact due to a chronic lack of adequate management, maintenance, and system planning,” the report concluded. The communities where water systems failed “were not robust enough to handle the stress of drought conditions,” the report found.

In Magdalena, some community residents share that view.

“I think it’s the result of incompetence,” said Hoss Fosso, who is retired and lives with his wife in Magdalena. He has been driving to Socorro to buy drinking water to use at his house. “It should be a priority to make sure you’re covered and have a back up.”

Journal staff writer Leslie Linthicum contributed to this report.