As if a pandemic and recession aren't enough to deal with, the rest of 2020 looks parched for Northern New Mexico.

According to the June 18 update of the United States Drought Monitor, approximately 75 percent of New Mexico is abnormally dry. More than half the state is experiencing at least moderate drought conditions and significant portions are sustaining severe or extreme drought. These percentages have increased dramatically over the last month.

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln compiles data from agencies all over the country to produce the Drought Monitor (droughtmonitor.unl.edu). Updated every Thursday, the color-coded maps track drought conditions in each state and across the United States.

Southern Taos County currently lies within the deep orange band that indicates severe drought. The area north of Questa, including Amalia and Costilla, lies in a flaming red "extreme drought" zone.

According to the May 1 Basin Outlook Report prepared by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the month of April left New Mexico with deficits in both snow and rainfall. With temperatures climbing steadily throughout the month to record-setting levels, the northern mountains began to rapidly shed what little snowpack was left.

Coming off a marginal snow accumulation season and a dry spring, streamflows are forecasted to be well below average for the rest of the season. As of May 1, statewide snowpack averaged 39 percent of median, compared to 106 percent this time last year.

"What I like to see in a typical melt-off scenario is the snowpack at higher elevations starting to melt just as we're getting spring rains down in the valleys," said Chris Romero, snow survey hydrologic technician at NRCS in Albuquerque, who prepares the Basin Outlook Report.

"If we have sufficient spring rain down below, it permeates the soil," he added. "So the melt off coming along behind it contributes to healthy streamflows instead of just soaking into the ground."

But the region didn't get much spring rainfall this year, so the topsoil sopped up much of the melt off like a sponge. Even so, Romero said, the area from Taos north and the western region including the Four Corners are seeing serious moisture deficits in the topsoil.

"Another thing is that our snow accumulation season has condensed over the last decade," said Romero. "Our spring melt off starts about a month earlier than it used to."

According to the Basin Outlook Report, reservoir levels on May 1 measured 63 percent below average - slightly higher than last year. However, this reflects the early snowmelt and runoff. WIth those record-setting April temperatures - often 10 degrees above normal - we can expect streamflow levels in all New Mexico rivers to be well below average from here on.

How to define drought

According to water resources expert John Fleck at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, hundreds of definitions of drought exist, but he prefers the simple one offered by Kelly Redmond at the Desert Research Institute in Reno: "Insufficient water to meet needs."

But those five deceptively simple words, Fleck noted, capture a critical complexity of what we think about when we think about drought.

"How much water is actually there - and how much water do people and ecosystems need? Those three numbers vary independently of one another," he said. He cited two classic drought locations - Yuma, Arizona, and the Imperial Valley in Southern California - neither of which averages even four inches of annual precipitation.

"If you're a human resident of either location, you receive your water supply via canal from Hoover Dam, so you don't personally experience the hardship of drought," Fleck said. "But if you're a tree, a fish or a mammal, you get hammered."

Three perspectives

Formally, there are three different ways to measure and analyze drought: the meteorological, the hydrological and the agricultural.

A meteorologist looks at how much precipitation is recorded for a particular area in a given year and how weather patterns such as El Niño and La Niña are likely to affect it in the near term or over a span of years.

A hydrologist analyzes the mechanics of water movement - how much snowpack accumulates in a given season, how quickly it melts, how that affects flow levels in creeks and rivers as well as the overall water table.

A soil scientist or agricultural specialist focuses on the soil - how dry it is at various depths, how that affects various crop yields and how crop yields such as hay and alfalfa impact livestock cultivation.

Who has first dibs?

You might expect farmers and ranchers to get priority treatment in times of drought, based on their role as food providers. But surprisingly, the laws that govern allocation of water in New Mexico pay no attention to what it's getting used for.

As Fleck notes, it's all based on the doctrine of "prior appropriation," which originated in mining communities in Colorado and California. The first party that drew water from a given source and put it to what's called "beneficial use" has first claim - although he adds that "beneficial use" is broadly defined.

In Taos County, the two pueblos - Taos and Picuris - have top priority as prior appropriators, followed by the acequia associations, based on their deep history. In theory, the pueblos would have first right, in a drought year, because they historically predated the acequias.

"In practice, it's a much more complicated and localized effort," said Fleck. "The acequia communities, for example, have always managed under a proportional sharing of shortages."

Because they date back so far historically, the pueblos and acequias have higher priority than municipal users. If water becomes scarce, the municipalities could have their allocations curtailed. But the New Mexico way, as Fleck put it, has traditionally been to find a workaround that avoids reducing any party's allocation.

Not so in Colorado, he added. "They enforce priorities all the time up there as a matter of practice. So it's not uncommon for farmers to have their allocations curtailed."

In some cases - Albuquerque is the prime example - the lower-priority municipality simply buys out the prior-appropriator rights held by longstanding agricultural users.

So why wouldn't Albuquerque just drill some deep wells rather than bartering for the right to draw a bigger share of Río Grande water?

Since the 1950s, Fleck said, the state has recognized the interconnection between ground and surface water. "If you tap into groundwater, sooner or later it will affect surface flows," he added. "So it's pretty tough to get a permit to drill a major well in New Mexico."

All water is local

While it's useful to track weather patterns and water management at the regional level, Fleck noted that "all water is local." When it comes down to how water gets distributed, especially during drought conditions, it's critical to look at local water management practices.

"We've had water scarcity in New Mexico as long as human memory," said Paula Garcia, who owns a small ranch in Mora County and serves as executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

Garcia said that, as one who's been involved with water at one level or another for several decades, she's observed that drought years are getting more intense and coming more frequently. "As an irrigator, what I'm seeing in 2020 is abnormally low runoff for this early in the growing season."

She noted that soil moisture in April and May is critical to seed germination - especially for traditional row crops like corn, beans, peas and squash. "There was a lot less runoff than expected, and in some places, it completely dried up."

This year, she said, the acequias started to go into rotation in May. In other words, the mayordomo sets up a round-robin schedule that allots members a certain number of days - or sometimes hours - to draw from the ditch, based on the size of their water rights.

"During a good year," Garcia said, "more than one member can draw on the same day, so the rotation is shorter."

In her acequia, there are six irrigators. To make better use of water in a dry year, their mayordomo allows them to irrigate only after 6 p.m., when lower temperatures help minimize evaporation. This year, Garcia said, he allowed them to water pastures during April but since then, due to the low runoff, has restricted irrigation to home gardens and cash crops.

Watersheds especially vulnerable

The Río Grande Water Fund, a project launched by the Nature Conservancy and supported by numerous public and private interests, puts much of its effort into protecting the Río Grande watershed.

"One of our key goals is to raise awareness of prolonged drought conditions," said Collin Haffey, conservation manager at the Nature Conservancy in Santa Fe and coordinator of the Water Fund. "They greatly increase the risk of catastrophic fire, which has a devastating impact on our watersheds."

Drought shaped the environment in the Southwest even before the first humans settled here. "But what the science tells us is that as we continue to warm the planet, the droughts will continue to get hotter and possibly longer," he said. "The extreme events you get on top of those droughts - like the Las Conchas Fire - are going to be that much worse."

So what's to be done - if anything? Haffey cited a number of municipalities - such as the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Authority - that are developing 100-year plans that factor in climate warming. The UNM Water Resources Department has been working with pueblos and reservations across the state to formulate long-term, adaptive water management strategies.

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