N.M. town weathers longterm drought

/ Source: The Associated Press

Richard Trujillo prays for rain. Besides the obvious need in his parched community along the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, there's another reason he hopes New Mexico's drought will end soon.

He could spend more time in public.

"I sleep, eat and drink with worries about how we're going to get through this," said Trujillo, the city utilities administrator. "When it hasn't snowed or rained, people will want to know, 'What are you doing to solve this?'"

Trujillo said he can't venture into a grocery store or restaurant without someone asking when it will rain — as if he controls such things.

"So I stay home a lot, just looking at the Weather Channel," he said.

As in much of the Southwest, the high desert lands of New Mexico are locked in another drought cycle this summer, with wildfires raging in tinder-dry forests and limited precipitation offering little relief so far.

According to the National Weather Service, statewide precipitation for May was 36 percent of normal — the seventh straight excessively dry month.

In some areas, the seven-month period since November is the driest on record. Santa Fe has received 1.2 inches of precipitation, the lowest in 133 years of record keeping, and the 0.41 inches in Albuquerque is the lowest in 114 years of data.

In Cloudcroft, nestled at 8,663 feet in the cool Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico, village trustees have declared a water emergency and prepared plans to haul up to 25,000 gallons daily if necessary.

Over the past five years, though, some areas of New Mexico have suffered more than others, and several factors have contributed to make Las Vegas among the worst hit.

"Las Vegas is having a longterm drought," said Charlie Liles, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service in Albuquerque. "The 60-month data is 18.71 inches below normal. That's essentially a year's precipitation over a five-year period."

Las Vegas relies almost entirely on surface water. Melting snowpack and rainfall collects to form the Gallinas River, which stores 98 percent of the water for the town's 18,000 residents in two reservoirs in the mountains above town.

The river then trickles through the meadows of Las Vegas, barely ankle-deep and a few yards wide this summer.

"Through the '70s and '80s, you'd usually see spring runoff last into June," Trujillo recalled. "By the middle of July, we'd get into the monsoon season. There was always enough water. It was like clockwork."

But the clock seems broken. It wasn't a snowy winter this year. And as months pass without rain, city reserves have dropped to 50 percent of capacity — enough to last only into September unless monsoonal rains sweep across New Mexico as they usually do in July and August.

Consequently, Las Vegas has imposed some of New Mexico's most restrictive water rules. Outdoor watering has been banned since last fall, leaving lawns withering in once-lush neighborhoods.

Deborah Martinez, who has lived 42 years in the stately Victorian home where she grew up, gave up her vegetable garden this year. Where her grass hasn't yellowed, it has blown away, and the morning glories that once grew on her fence are history.

She and her husband, William, use a 50-gallon barrel to collect water for the shriveling roses and vines adorning their porch. They didn't nurture their tulips this spring. They've even begun to share their bath water.

"We'd rather have survival water," Mrs. Martinez said as the two sat on a porch swing. "It's OK if everything dies, as long as we don't."

Other restrictions target businesses. Hotel pools are empty, and longterm guests must ask if they want linens changed more than once every four days. Businesses have been asked to conduct leak surveys and make repairs.

At restaurants, water isn't provided with meals unless a diner requests it, and then it's served in a paper cup. Car washes operate two days each week, so many residents will clean their vehicles while visiting Santa Fe _ 60 miles away.

Despite the restrictions, Trujillo said there have been few complaints. Residents are consuming about 1.3 million gallons daily, compared with 2.8 million gallons during normal usage last year.

"Our citizens have been great," Trujillo said. "We've been working since 2000 to implement year-round awareness programs to help conserve water during the droughts, and the response has been outstanding."

Those efforts could be rewarded soon.

Liles said forecasting models suggest precipitation should be close to average in July and August, meaning the late-summer downpours may be coming. In years since 1950 when snowpack was low, Liles said, the ensuing summer rains were at normal levels.

But he offered a word of caution. The most recent years for poor snowpack in New Mexico were 2000 and 2002 — close together over the 56-year study span. Liles wondered if those years might indicate a trend toward deepening drought.