In parched West, no state is as dry as New Mexico

August 12, 2013 

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In Las Cruces, N.M., the locals have given the Rio Grande a new name: Rio Sand. It’s never anything more than a stream around the city.

MICHAEL ROBINSON CHAVEZ — Los Angeles Times

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 a puff of dust — and bad news.

Across the West, 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. Idaho, Oregon and California have been beset by more frequent and ferocious wildfires across an ever-more combustible landscape.

But nowhere is it worse than in New Mexico, where 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.

Wildlife managers are hauling water to elk herds in the mountains and blaming the drought for the unusually high number of deer and antelope killed on New Mexico’s highways, surmising that the animals are taking greater risks to find water.

Thousands of Albuquerque’s trees have died, and in the state’s agricultural belt, low yields and crop failures are the norm. Livestock levels in many areas are about one-fifth of normal.

The last three years have been the driest and warmest since record-keeping 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. Instead, deficits will require several years of normal rainfall to erase.

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.

The question many here are grappling with is whether the changes are a permanent result of climate change or part of cyclical weather cycle, like the droughts of the past.

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 prairies. We’ve ruined it and it’s never going to come back.”

‘STATE CHANGE’

Kris Havstad, a range expert with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, joined a group of other biologists and land managers on a recent tour of rangeland north of Las Cruces.

Federal scientists are grimly watching a rare ecological phenomenon unfold here, a catastrophic alteration known as “state change” — the collapse of the vast Chihuahuan Desert grasslands ecosystem and its transformation into a sandy, scrub desert.

Carpeting the landscape in lush waves, Black Grama grass had long been the signature of the 140,000-square-mile desert. But overgrazing and persistent drought have hit hard here.

The desert is changing, scientists say. Grasses are in a cycle of collapse, overwhelmed by hardy and long-lived shrubs such as mesquite and creosote.

Havstad picks at a mesquite seed pod, noting that absent any grass, hungry livestock are consuming them. “They are not terribly nutritious,” he said. “It’s like being the last one at the buffet and the only thing left is snow peas.”

With only shrubs available to eat, the land is losing its ability to feed cattle that graze here. So little grass remains that a square mile — 640 acres — can sustain just three to five cows.

Jim McCormick is the Bureau of Land Management’s assistant district manager for the area. He said his staff had spent time and prodigious sums of money in a program to help the land recover. “Then came the drought to undo all our work,” he said.

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