U.S. Water News Online
EDGEWOOD, N.M. -- Travis Gatling is drilling a well at the
edge of the Gonzales family's parched and dusty front yard.
Two doors up the street, another well-drilling company is
searching for ways to squeeze more water out of an existing well
because its production has dropped dramatically.
It's a familiar scene in the east mountain area of Bernalillo
County and other parts of New Mexico, where drought and growing
populations are stressing wells.
And it is just one of the many signs of a dramatic drought
unfolding across the state.
In the Middle Rio Grande Valley, about 60 miles of the river have
dried to a dusty bed of sand. The monsoon rains so vital to wildlife,
farmers and backyard gardeners are late. Temperatures are blistering.
Only 11 percent of New Mexico's range and pasture land is rated in
good or better than good shape -- the worst statewide percentage in
the country. Bark beetles have attacked more than 500,000 acres of
forest and killed millions of dr ought-stressed pinons. And fire
danger hit all-time highs this month.
Not since the 1950s has the state experienced such extreme
hardship caused by lack of rain and snow.
``This is as bad as it's ever been,'' said Gatling of Gatling Well
Drilling Co. ``I just can't keep up.''
Wells in the east mountains are going dry so fast Gatling and
other drillers have huge backlogs. Donn Graham, owner of W.H. Adkison
Drilling Inc., has stopped taking on new work.
One morning recently, both Gatling and Graham were at work on V
Hill Road in Edgewood.
Three homes there share one well that has gone from producing 12
gallons a minute when it was drilled several years ago to just one
gallon a minute.
Chris Gonzales and his wife realized last summer the well wouldn't
hold out and started saving for a new one. They stopped watering
their small lawn and cut back their indoor water use. Only a few
yuccas and pinon trees survived.
``We're having to be real conservative,'' Gonzales said, adding
that the three families on the well try to schedule or spread out
their water use. The well can go dry during high demand weekends and
then the families must wait for the water level to recover.
Gatling finished drilling a 400-foot-deep well for the Gonzales
family last month. Meanwhile, Graham was trying to find a short-term
fix for the shared well, probably a small storage system.
The water table in the east mountains has been dropping as the
drought continues and more people move to the area and stick new
straws in the region's aquifer. Drought means less rain and snow is
available to recharge the aquifer.
``Homes, drought -- it all adds to the enchilada,'' said Graham,
who has been drilling wells in the area since 1975.
Gatling agreed and said the problems have increased in the last
``We're doing very few new installs,'' he said. ``It's basically
Some wells have to be drilled as deep as 800 feet and the cost --
which can climb to $10,000 or more -- is too much for some
Rusty Whitten, who repairs and replaces well pumps, said he is
worried. ``The wells are drying up. The aquifer's getting lower and
The east mountains isn't the only place where homeowners and small
community water systems are running out of water or being forced to
deepen their wells, said Matthew Holmes, executive director of the
New Mexico Rural Water Association.
Holmes said at least 450,000 New Mexicans are served by small
water systems. Some rely on wells and some on surface water, which is
also in short supply.
So far this year, a dozen communities have asked the state Drought
Strike Team for help.
The meager rain and snowfall New Mexico has experienced for the
last three years is not that different from what has happened in the
What is different is how many people live here, how many wells are
tapping the state's aquifers, how much water is being diverted from
``When you look at all the numbers, it's not an exceptional
drought, but when you couple that with the increased demand, we've
got problems,'' said Charlie Liles, head of the National Weather
Service in Albuquerque.
Drought is hard to define. The state has clearly suffered for
about three years from meteorologic drought from lack of
precipitation and hydrologic drought from lack of runoff.
Some areas have large precipitation deficits. For the last five
years, Los Alamos is down 19 inches, an entire year's worth of rain
and snow. Other places like Cloudcroft and Red River have had more
rain than normal.
Over the last three years, New Mexico's reservoirs have been
nearly emptied. Santa Rosa Lake, for example, is almost dry with just
5 percent of its average storage for this time of year. Elephant
Butte Reservoir is at 21 percent of normal. Stream flows are well
But conditions are not as bad as during the drought of the 1950s,
said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist for the Western Regional
Climate Center in Reno, Nev.
He defines drought as not having enough water to meet demands. If
there were no -- or very few -- people in New Mexico today, the
natural systems could handle the current drought, he said.
``To me, drought is kind of a human construct,'' Redmond said.
Rain will help, but it will not end the drought. It will take many
years for New Mexico reservoirs to refill and parched soils to
Farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District -- faced with
less than a quarter of their normal water allocation this year --
have swamped the state Engineer's Office with requests for new well
permits. Those wells -- which pump groundwater to replace the water
that normally runs from the reservoir to irrigation ditches -- will
probably be needed for many years.
Soils around the state are very dry, said Ken Scheffe, state soil
scientist for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
``There's not any moisture in them,'' he said.
Grasses are suffering from the lack of rain, the winds and the
heat. Most of the state is brown and even in places like Vaughn where
recent rains have greened things up, the grass is not growing like it
should. Some long, soaking rains are needed to rejuvenate those warm
``Unless we get rains in the next week, we're not going to have
grasses,'' said Dan Thomas, NRCS field team leader in Los Lunas.
So far, state and federal water managers have found ways to get by
during the drought by tapping years' worth of water saved in
reservoirs and taking other measures.
``We, the farmers and us, have been dodging the bullet the last
few years. We keep finding some way to get through, but if we keep
having dry winters, one of these years it's not going to look too
good,'' said Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Manager Jim
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