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The map on the right shows drought conditions in New Mexico as of Nov. 3. The one on the left shows conditions as of Nov. 10, as the levels of extreme (red) and exceptional (dark red) drought increase across the state.

We knew the drought was bad, but maybe not this bad.

For the week of Nov. 4-10, about three-fourths of Taos County faced extreme drought (D3), just one rung above the deepest category of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The remaining quarter of the county fared worse.

A swath of the county from Pot Creek to Peñasco, southward into Río Arriba and eastward into Mora County registered at the lowest level of the scale, exceptional drought (D4).

These drought categories point to conditions that cause major crop and pasture losses, widespread water shortages and possible water emergencies.

"As far as precipitation goes, we're at the bottom of the barrel," said Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist in the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service.

Fontenot presented information about the current drought at a virtual session Nov. 10 facilitated by New Mexico State University Southwest Border Food Protection and Emergency Preparedness Center for the New Mexico Agriculture Department.

The department is hosting sessions regarding water outlook and drought management throughout the state.

Attending the session were 78 Northern New Mexico ranchers and farmers, acequia parciantes (members of community irrigation associations), mayordomos (irrigation ditch bosses) and others, including about 10 people from Taos County.

Fontenot explained how the drought severity classification system works. Indicators that go into the determination include, but are not limited to, soil moisture, weekly streamflow, precipitation, water content of snow, groundwater levels, reservoir storage and pasture/range conditions.

Long-term drought determinations are made by blending data from six to 60 months.

The U.S. Drought Monitor then maps this information for the whole country, resulting in the broad swirls and blobs of brown, red, yellow and orange on the drought maps.The Drought Monitor -- updated by a team that includes the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- releases its map weekly.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture uses this information to trigger disaster declarations and eligibility for low-interest loans.

No monsoons

"The failure of the monsoons (this summer) pushed things down," said Fontenot, "and had a huge impact across the region."

Paula Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Acequia Association, agreed.

"The data are very sobering," she said as she began a virtual presentation that pooled information from acequia associations across New Mexico.

"A lot of us on the ground know we're in a serious drought," she said. "What we're observing now is unprecedented."

Garcia reported there are 640 acequias in the state though she estimated there may be as many as 700. (Taos Valley Acequia Association website estimates as many as 1,200.)

And each has felt the hardship of this drought.

Garcia spoke movingly about how repartimiento -- a centuries-old practice of water sharing, especially during times of shortages -- helped New Mexicans through the recent irrigation season.

"Repartimiento is rooted in cultural traditions and in practice. It's codified in state law as an exception to prior appropriation," she explained.

In state water law, prior appropriation holds that those with the earliest water rights in time are first in line to use the water. Without a system or customary practice that allows for more sharing during shortages, those with the earliest rights could consume all or most of the available supply.

During the virtual session, Garcia responded in chat-mode to a Taos News question about hay production.

"Our field (in Mora) that normally produces 1,500 bales only yielded 80 this year. And we only got one cut while most years we get two cuts," Garcia wrote.

"The reductions along the Río Chama were estimated to be 70 percent. We got similar reports from Taos of yields of only 25-50 percent. The hay yields are 10-25 percent of normal in a lot of the acequia communities."

What's ahead

It's going to be a La Niña winter. This means the coming months are projected to be drier and warmer than normal throughout the region.

Fontenot pointed out that there will still be some storms, but in general the trend is above normal temperatures and below normal moisture.

"Through Jan. 31, we can expect drought to persist throughout the state," he said.

So how will ranchers and farmers cope with continued drought?

Garcia outlined strategies acequias could undertake to deal with water shortages, including prioritizing crops that are drought tolerant and developing water storage capabilities where possible.

George "Fritz" Hahn, who serves as a town of Taos council member, expressed confidence that the area will see some relief by spring.

Hahn attended the virtual session, saying later by telephone it was vital that acequias are prepared to capture earlier-than-normal spring runoff. He stressed that parciantes and mayordomos need to adapt.

"Long term, we're looking at mega-drought, and we need to prepare for that," said Hahn.

One way to prepare is to be ready in the spring when the water arrives, sometimes as early as March and April.

"With global warming, we need to do our annual cleaning in the fall instead of the spring," said Hahn.

Hahn represents the town as a parciante on the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo; likewise on the Vigil y Romo acequia, where he serves as mayordomo. He's a board member of Taos Valley Acequia Association.

South of Taos, the community of Dixon is experiencing even worse drought conditions than their neighbors to the north.

Robert Templeton, who also attended the virtual meeting, is a board member of Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association and parciante on the Acequia del Bosque.

He foresees the possibility of more stringent water sharing regimes.

"It is difficult to work out some of these details in a situation where (some) private landowners may see their lawn as being on an equal footing with someone's corn crop," he said by email.

In 2019, Templeton helped organize the New Mexico Acequia Association climate change workshop.

In the end, the challenges posed by the drought -- compounded by the double-whammy of COVID-19 -- will require everyone to pull together.

As Hahn put it, "We have great hope. It's not wishful thinking."

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