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Dry as a bone

The well that supplies water to Cañoncito sits near the very dry Galisteo Creek. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

CAÑONCITO – Throughout Andy Ortiz’s 75 years in Cañoncito, a small village south of Santa Fe, dryness and water scarcity have always been constants.

The rocky, desert landscape has never made it easy for local residents when it comes to water, but it came as a shock when levels at the Cañoncito at Apache Canyon Mutual Domestic Water Association, which distributes water to residents, ran so low that pumps stopped working.

In past years, the culprit for low levels might have been a leaking pipe or breakdown in machinery. This time, though, there simply isn’t enough water in the area.

“This was definitely the hardest – we had never run out (of water) like that,” Ortiz said.

Andy Ortiz, vice president of the Cañoncito of Apache Canyon Mutual Domestic Water Association, stands near the community’s water tanks. The system’s wells are nearly dry and the county has had to step in to help. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

For nine days, Ortiz and many other residents went without running water, substituting with whatever they could purchase from the store. Eventually, a water hauler from Española delivered 32,000 gallons to the system to maintain supplies.

It’s not a problem unique to Cañoncito, though.

As much of New Mexico continues to experience record levels of drought, small water systems and rural residents are feeling the strain on their supplies. Smaller water systems, which often rely on a single source, are having to adopt new methods to ensure stable supplies.

That necessity has become even more apparent with drought conditions, made worse by climate change, expected to continue long into 2021.

Bill Conner, executive director of the New Mexico Rural Water Association, said wells are drying up across the state and that rural systems can struggle to adapt. Some systems have only a couple of hundred members, meaning finances are typically tight and infrastructure can be decades old.

For Cañoncito’s water system, the solution will be a large undertaking with assistance from local governments.

Santa Fe County is in the process of establishing a pipeline that will connect Cañoncito to water sourced from the Buckman Direct Diversion at the Rio Grande. The project was already underway, but the scarcity of Cañoncito’s supply convinced county officials to fast-track the process, Utilities Division Director John Dupuis said.

The project is now six months ahead of schedule, Dupuis said. Ortiz, who’s served multiple stints on the system’s board, said the county taking control would be the best way to secure the water future of Cañoncito.

Just a few miles away, in the city of Santa Fe, drought conditions are nearly identical, but the impact on residents has been much less severe.

Unlike smaller water systems, the city has multiple water sources, including the Buckman Direct Diversion, the Canyon Water Treatment Plant and a series of different wells.

City Water Division Director Jesse Roach said the city has enough supplies to withstand several more years of drought. However, with low flows in the Rio Grande, they’ve had to rely more on their wells over the past year.

And while Santa Feans are using less water than in previous years – about half of the usage seen 25 years ago – city estimates show the area could begin seeing water shortages as soon as 2030 if not enough is done to head off the issue.

“We are fortunate to have the diversity that we have,” Roach said. “There are mutual domestic providers that only have a single well … they don’t have the level of resiliency that we have.”

The community of Eldorado, south of Santa Fe, is in stage 1 water restrictions due to long-lasting drought. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

In Eldorado, the local water system has already started to implement restrictions on water usage. General Manager Steve King said supplies are stable, but the system felt they needed to be proactive.

“This is not a one off,” King said. “The changing climate patterns are here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

In some cases, even individual households are finding themselves in equally difficult situations. Many rural households use wells located on their property for water, but an increasing number of those are running low or are completely dry.

Cindie Alderete, co-owner of Tijeras-based East Mountain Water Hauling, said her company is seeing more and more people asking for water to be hauled to their house after their personal supply dried up. She’s used to receiving around 15 calls a day for water; nowadays, she gets upwards of 40 calls a day from people asking for water deliveries.

And the calls are from all over the state. They’ve recently been taking more orders from Rio Rancho and Corrales, and have even gotten calls from as far away as Aztec and Socorro, with folks desperate to find anyone who can deliver water to them.

“We never used to go out there,” Alderete said. “We’re starting to have to go out there on a weekly basis.”

While residents could attempt to drill another well, Alderete said those costs could be prohibitively expensive and the results are anything but guaranteed. Someone could spend upward of $20,000 on a new well that’s already dry.

Santa Fe County is still in the most severe category of exceptional drought. Water experts in the state have said a disappointing snowpack could dry out conditions even more.

For Ortiz, despite all the assistance the area has received, he’s reserving all his optimism for when the county can start providing water on a regular basis. Until then, he said those in Cañoncito will have to conserve what water they have and hope for some rain.

“Everybody’s hoping and praying that the county comes and takes it over,” he said.