RIO GRANDE VALLEY, N.M. – Scientists in the West have a particular way of walking a landscape and divining its secrets: They kick a toe into loamy soil or drag a boot heel across the desert’s crust, leaning down to squint at the tiny excavation.
Try that maneuver in New Mexico these days and it yields nothing but bad news in a puff of dust.
Across the West, changes in the climate are taking a toll. Almost 87 percent of the region is in a drought.
Nevada is removing wild horses and stocks of cattle from federal rangelands, Wyoming is seeding clouds as part of a long-term “weather modification program,” officials in Colorado say the state’s southeastern plains are experiencing Dust Bowl conditions, and the entire western U.S. has been beset by more frequent and ferocious wildfires across an ever-more combustible landscape.
But nowhere is it worse than in New Mexico. In this parched state, the question is no longer how much worse it can get but whether it will ever get better – and, ominously, whether collapsing ecosystems can recover even if it does.
The statistics are sobering: All of New Mexico is officially in a drought, and three-quarters of it is categorized as severe or exceptional. Reservoir storage statewide is 17 percent of normal, lowest in the West. Residents of some towns subsist on trucked-in water, and others are drilling deep wells costing $100,000 or more to sink and still more to operate.
The last three years have been the driest and warmest since recordkeeping began here in 1895. Chuck Jones, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said even the state’s recent above-average monsoon rains “won’t make a dent” in the drought; deficits will require several years of normal rainfall to erase, should normal rain ever arrive.
With water supplies at the breaking point and no relief in sight, a domino-effect water war has broken out, which might be a harbinger of the West’s future. Texas has filed suit, arguing that groundwater pumping in New Mexico is reducing Texas’ share of the Rio Grande. Oklahoma has successfully fended off a legal challenge from Texas over water from the Red River.
New Mexico’s stretch of the once-mighty Rio Grande is so dewatered that, sadly but aptly, it is referred to as the “Rio Sand.”
The question many here are grappling with is whether the changes are a permanent result of climate change or part of a cyclical weather cycle. Jones, a member of the governor’s drought task force, is cautious about identifying three years of extreme drought as representing a new climate pattern for New Mexico. It could be a multiyear aberration.
Nonetheless, most long-term plans put together by cattle ranchers, farmers and land managers include the probability that the drought is here to stay.
John Clayshulte, a third-generation rancher and farmer near Las Cruces, removed all his cattle from his federal grazing allotment. “There’s just not any sense putting cows on there. There’s not enough for them to eat,” he said.
“It’s all changed. This used to be shortgrass prairies,” Clayshulte said. “We’ve ruined it and it’s never going to come back.”