December 28, 2021

2021 Top Stories #4: Drought continues

Laura Paskus

The Rio Grande near Mesilla in 2014.

See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here.

Gripped by decades-long drought, water managers in New Mexico faced tough choices this year, including ending the irrigation season early.

The year’s water woes began in the winter, when below average snowpack, warm temperatures and dry soil conditions limited the spring runoff.

On top of that, New Mexico owed water to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact from previous years.

In May, the Interstate Stream Commission sought federal financial support from the U.S. Department of the Interior for both long-term and short-term drought relief.

At one point, the largest reservoir in New Mexico, Elephant Butte, dropped and water managers were concerned that they could see conditions not seen since the 1950s. Monsoon rains helped prevent the worst-case scenarios. As of Dec. 16, Elephant Butte was at 7.8 percent of capacity, which was actually an increase from 5.7 percent one year earlier.

Related: As water levels drop in Elephant Butte, Reclamation prepares for conditions not seen since the 1950s

Almost the entire state was gripped by exceptional drought by the time summer started, but a decent monsoon season brought some relief. As of Dec. 16, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed no exceptional drought in the state, however much of northern New Mexico is still experiencing extreme drought and the entire state has some level of drought or abnormally dry conditions.

Drought conditions in New Mexico have worsened since October, when the water year began. At the start of the water year, nearly 11 percent of New Mexico was not experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions.

Related: Monsoon moisture brings drought relief, but New Mexico may see a dry winter

The monsoon moisture provided ranchers some optimism and people like Jimbo Williams, who had sold off his herd, began restocking due to the increased vegetation. But ranchers remain cautious.

On the Colorado River, reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead are recording historic lows. The Western Area Power Administration is concerned that Glen Canyon Dam, which creates Lake Powell, may not be able to generate electricity if the water drops too far. Upper Basin states, including New Mexico, have been releasing water from reservoirs to help augment the levels in Lake Powell. For New Mexico, that means water stored in Navajo Lake has been released into the San Juan River.

Without a decent spring runoff next year, dire water conditions could lead to more tough decisions in 2022.

In the face of climate change, driven largely by anthropogenic emissions, the southwest United States will likely experience aridification, meaning that the drought conditions will become more common.