Square in the middle of three years of intense drought conditions, New Mexico is dealing with an escalating water problem that has now caused one town, Magdalena, to run out of water, forcing city officials to scramble for solutions to bring relief to local residents and businesses.
The water table in the town has dropped almost 20 feet since January due to the persistent drought that has troubled most of the Southwest over the last two years, and now into the third summer season. Town officials say it is because of the extreme drought and infrastructure problems in the well that caused it to collapse.
Town officials want help from the State of New Mexico to dig a deeper well and in the interim are relying on water tenders from nearby White Sands Missile Range to truck in water to help local water users.
Magdalena's well is not the first to fail. Across the eastern plains of New Mexico livestock wells stand empty and ranchers are selling their cattle, and wells near Santa Fe and Las Vegas (New Mexico) have also run dry or nearly dry in recent weeks.
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Meanwhile, Hatch chili pepper growers and southern New Mexico's pecan orchards received news last week that the first release of irrigation water from Sierra County reservoirs is beginning to trickle down the Rio Grande River near Las Cruces and is available for use, but hardly enough, as one grower put it, "to make a difference."
Bert Cortez, manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in El Paso, says farmers and ranchers all across southern New Mexico have been patiently awaiting water releases from Elephant Butte reservoir.
Too little, too late?
"It's the latest we've ever started the irrigation season," he said.
But he quickly warned that the small amount of water released will do little to bring substantial relief to the historic drought. Only 160,000 acre-feet of water will be distributed to irrigators in Doña Ana County, El Paso County and Mexico this season — about 5 percent of a full allocation.
"We're going to stretch it out as much as we can, but right now the plans are for a mid-July shut-off," Cortez added.
With the small release slowly working its way south in the parched and dry riverbed, irrigation officials complained about how long it is taking for water to reach Las Cruces. With the current critical shortage of available water in New Mexico's reservoir system, the irrigation season this year is expected to be over within 40 to 45 days, leaving chili pepper and pecan growers wondering whether they can produce a profitable crop this year.
In the eight-month period from Oct. 1, 2012, through the end of May, 2013, most of New Mexico received less than one inch of measurable rainfall.
“No part of the state has been spared,” reports Deirdre Kann at the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.
Extreme drought prompts faithful to pray for rain
At the end of May, the weekly federal Drought Monitor indicated that 98 percent of New Mexico was in “severe” drought, the worst conditions in the country.
Phil King, a hydrologist at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and water management consultant to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, says the Rio Grande through Las Cruces has been dry since last autumn. He says the district, which provides Rio Grande water to all of southern New Mexico's farmers, normally starts irrigation deliveries in February or March.
King and other water officials say rain is the only solution to the water crisis across the Southwest, and while a few rain showers dropped moisture over the weekend to parts of Southern New Mexico, the situation remains critical. The summer forecast is calling for little rain, so conditions will "likely worsen before they get better," causing some Southwest faithful to schedule special ceremonies asking for divine intervention.
Last week a coalition of church congregations in southern New Mexico staged a "Day of Prayer" for moisture and rain, and, along an irrigation canal in Bernalillo, near Albuquerque, a small group of churchgoers gathered to recite prayers with their rosaries in hand, a tradition that stretches back to the days of the occupying Spaniards.
It's not the only show of "faith support" calling for the end of the drought. Last month a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish "faithful" gathered for a special worship service in Oklahoma City that offered prayers to end drought conditions and bring about the return of rain. And in Lubbock two weeks ago, a Catholic bishop scheduled a special Mass at a local farm to bless seeds and soil in hopes of a productive crop year.
Weather forecasters say with dry summer conditions ahead, there may be little chance of any substantial rain in the near future "without a miracle." With such a dire forecast as that, some are saying it is no wonder that organized religion is experiencing renewed interest in the weather.