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Villains, heroes and panic politics of drought

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If “drought” is the villain, is “El Niño” – the climate pattern that brings our winter snows – the hero?

And if the answer is “yes,” has our hero abandoned us? What had been looking over the late spring and early summer like it could be gangbuster of an El Niño looks like it’s fizzling, slashing the odds of a wet winter to bail us out of this drought.

But maybe things aren’t as bad as all that. After a couple of recent trips up and down the Rio Grande this month, it was easy to shrug and ask, what drought?

Driving down I-25 the first weekend in August, I crossed the Rio Salado in northern Socorro County in its full flash-flood mode. Jumping off the freeway at the next exit, I drove out to see the Rio Grande roaring through the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s San Acacia Diversion Dam. It was big and muddy and roiling with that unmistakable smell of a desert flash flood and, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey’s gauge just downstream of the dam, the most water at San Acacia in nearly a year.

Then last week, I drove through rain and saw many of the usually dry little arroyos between here and Las Cruces flashing with muddy thunderstorm remnants. The landscape the whole way was a lovely shade of green.

But when I pulled off in Truth or Consequences, and headed through town and up to Elephant Butte Dam, I looked down into a great big empty. Fifteen years of mostly lousy snowpacks in the upstream watersheds that feed the Rio Grande, combined with continued downstream water needs, have left Elephant Butte Reservoir in a hole that will take far more than a couple of wet months to dig out of.

The following day, I got off the freeway and drove the old road toward Las Cruces past irrigation ditches already dry and a bunch of farm fields left fallow because of the irrigation shortfalls. It was a reminder that drought is not one thing and fixing our water shortfalls takes more than a month or two of good rain.

Mark Lubell, a researcher at the University of California’s Davis campus, had an interesting observation recently about the public perception of drought and its implications for the decisions we as a society make in response.

“Drought is a source of ‘panic politics,'” Lubell wrote.

Lubell, who studies the interaction between collective human psychology and the environmental problems we’re trying to solve, told me in an interview that, as a society, we collectively have a tendency to overreact to the damage droughts can cause. We can see drought around us, what Lubell and his colleagues have characterized as “psychological distance.” Drought is really close. We villainize it and react strongly in response.

Lubell and I are talking about two different droughts – California’s extreme one and New Mexico’s more modest version. But in his writing and our conversation, it was clear we share a common belief. Yeah, the drought’s bad, but it’s not that bad.

If you’re a farmer in New Mexico’s Hatch Valley, or a cattle rancher who depends on rangeland grazing to feed your cattle, this fourth year of deep drought has been tough. If you’re a silvery minnow or a mountain juniper, it’s been even tougher. But most of us have skated, insulated from drought by 21st-century infrastructure that has kept water flowing to our taps.

So maybe the answer to my initial question is, no, drought isn’t quite the villain we think it is.

But we’re a storytelling species by nature and we need villains, so let’s stick with the evils of drought for a moment and turn to the question of El Niño’s heroics – or lack thereof. El Niño happens when the Pacific Ocean warms along the equator, setting off a cascade of global climate effects that include, on average, an increase in our chances for a wet winter here in New Mexico. But note the weasel words – “on average.” That means some years, we get more wet and some years we don’t. That’s how averages work. “We’re not living ‘on average.’ We’re living this year,” Scripps Institute of Oceanography climate researcher Mike Dettinger pointed out. But despite the best efforts of climate scientists to telegraph the uncertainties – that El Niño is no guarantee – just as our storytelling selves want to turn drought into a villain, we want to look to El Niño to be our heroic savior.

The latest federal forecast, issued Aug. 7, says the coming El Niño is likely to be weak at best, with a 1-in-3 chance that we won’t have one at all, triggering a string of headlines about our disappearing hero. But don’t worry; the villain probably isn’t as bad as you think.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.