Most of the southwestern United States is locked in an unrelenting drought, brought on by rising temperatures and dwindling levels of precipitation. But with a heavy monsoon season so far in Taos and surrounding areas, farmers and ranchers are feeling a lot more optimistic about their harvests than they were just a few months ago.
"In the beginning of the summer, things looked really dismal," said Darryl Maestas, commissioner of the Acequia Madre in Talpa.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service within the United States Department of Agriculture publishes a monthly Basin Outlook Report for all 50 states.
The most recent report from May said, "Most of the state remains in drought conditions (D2-D4). Snowpack is well below average across New Mexico. Continuing drought conditions, low precipitation and warm and windy days have led to below average streamflow forecasts for the entire state. Water users should carefully evaluate their water needs as New Mexico moves into late spring and summer."
Drought conditions have worsened across the Southwest over the last several decades due to climate change and global warming. This year, states like Arizona and Oregon have suffered a higher than average number of devastating wildfires due to drought conditions.
A dry winter
"We were planning on a super-dry year -- kind of a repeat -- being a little bit worse than last year," said Maestas, 58.
Each April, after the ditch has been cleaned, Maestas opens the gate to fill the Acequia Madre with water from the Río Chiquito. He then walks the length of the ditch with the mayordomo to check for blockages.
The process typically takes two days. "This year, it took us 17 days to accomplish that," said Maestas. Wetting the ditch bottom took an extra-long time because the ground was so dry, he explained.
"We were taking advice from other ditches, because everybody, at least here in the Ranchos-Talpa area, was dealing with the same scenario," said Maestas. "We were all trying to figure out how to distribute water in a fair and equitable fashion."
After some experimenting, he ultimately went back to his usual method of distribution, giving water to one half of his parciantes on Tuesdays and the other half on Fridays.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service reported that Taos had seen around 2 inches of rainfall between May 26 and July 26.
"Normal rainfall amounts would be around 3 inches during this 60-day period," said Scott Overpeck, an NOAA meteorologist. "But areas in northern Taos County have had above-normal rainfall for this time period," said Overpeck.
The monsoon season in New Mexico typically runs from June through September, and is caused by low-pressure systems to the west and high-pressure systems to the east working together to bring in moisture from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
"That last week of May, up in the mountain, I don't know if it was rain, hail storm, something up there on our watershed came down, and the ditches rose up quite a bit," said Maestas, who had enough water to distribute to all his parciantes at the same time.
"It kept us whole, until the monsoons started in the last week of June," he said.
Maestas and his father grow an alfalfa-grass mix in their field to feed their five heads of cattle. He said, "Last year, everyone I knew grew half, or less than half of their normal first cut." The poor harvest meant ranchers had to either reduce their herds or start buying hay.
"We haven't had this kind of rain in a long time. Obviously, this isn't enough rain to bring us out of the drought by any means. But it sure helped this year," said Maestas.
A wet monsoon season means native grasses are able to compete with the non-native species, "with the noxious weeds," said James Wanstall, a Natural Resource Specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
"In a drought year, like last year -- it was the 'nonsoon' they called it -- we didn't get any rain. You see the noxious species take over, and they actually start to expand because the natives aren't there to compete against them, because [the natives] are not getting the moisture," he said.
The dry winter and spring did give some noxious weeds, like Hoary Cress, Myrtle Spurge and Russian Knapweed, a head start.
Brenda Clark, an El Prado resident, said, "We have developed a very large infestation of Bull and Scotch Thistle in the fields and along roads in town. These noxious weeds have thorny leaves and beautiful purple blossoms, each of which will scatter thousands of seeds."
Clark was hoping to organize a volunteer crew to remove the weeds in the Not Forgotten Outreach veteran's memorial across from Cid's Food Market on Paseo del Pueblo Norte.
"In order to eradicate these plants, they need to be dug up prior to the buds drying and placed in a garbage bag for disposal. If they're just cut off without removing the roots 3-4 inches below ground level, they will simply regrow and produce more blooms," said Clark. "If all landowners do their part, our precious lands can be rid of these destructive plants."
Summer thunderstorms can bring intense rainfall in a short amount of time, delivering more water than the ground can absorb. Contours in the ground can channel this rain into flash floods, which can be deadly.
According to the National Weather Service, flash floods can occur in New Mexico during any month, but most often occur during the monsoon season. Between 1993 and 2017, the state recorded 770 flash floods in the months of July and August. For comparison, there have been 440 flash floods during the other 10 months over the same 24-year period.
The NWS also reports that 65 New Mexicans have died as a result of flash flooding since 1959. Of those, 40 percent had driven their vehicle into the water. Other causes of death included those who were swept away in their vehicle (26 percent), those swept away on foot (16 percent) and other or unknown causes of death (34 percent).
The NWS often, but not always, issues a flash flood warning over local media outlets and through one's cell phone when a flash flood is imminent. Residents should head for higher ground and stay away from floodwaters when a warning is issued.
A good harvest
But the immediate benefits of the heavy rains this season are clear, perhaps most of all to farmers who have dealt with a water shortage in summers past.
For Tania Marines and Ric Gaudet, owners of One Straw Farm in Dixon, the monsoons have made all the difference in their harvest.
"There's about 3 acres worth of growing space, and right now we have about 2 acres that are planted," said Gaudet. "Because we ran out of time, and we were running out of water. We're unsure whenever we're gonna have enough water," he said.
The couple grows tomatoes, peppers, green chiles, onions, garlic, squash, cucumbers and three types of lettuce. They sell their produce at the farmer's market in Santa Fe, and to restaurants throughout Northern New Mexico.
"It was looking really grim in April," he said. "Sometime in May, we had two days of rain, and that gave us more hope that there would be enough water in the river."
Their farm is irrigated by the Acequia de la Plaza, which is fed by the Río Embudo.
"If it rains a lot in the mountains for a couple days, then that usually means you have at least a few more weeks of water down below," Gaudet continued.
During drought years in the past, acequia commissioners from the seven main ditches in the Embudo Valley have had to resort to a repartimiento, a strategy for sharing water when there's not enough to go around.
"That has not happened this year," said Gaudet. "We got close, but we seemed to get the rains just in time before the river went dry."