New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir Dries Up


Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory

Credit: NASA's Earth Observatory

Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

Severe drought has driven New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir to its lowest water level in four decades, a problem that’s the latest in a series of drought-related challenges facing the state.

The reservoir, which is New Mexico’s largest, currently holds just 3 percent of the water it held in the 1980s and 1990s, when the region received a streak of plentiful rainfall. The lack of water is due to the extreme drought that has gripped New Mexico for the past three years. Right now, 100 percent of the state ranks on some level of drought, according to the U.S. drought monitor, and 80 percent ranks in the monitor’s most severe categories of drought. Rising temperatures coupled with low snowpack on the mountains that feed the state’s rivers and abnormally low rainfall — the past two years have been the driest in New Mexico’s history — have fueled the drought.

The reservoir is located along the Rio Grande River, which is so exceptionally dry that one local paper dubbed it the “Rio Sand.” This year, the river experienced its shortest irrigation season in recorded history, ending just a month and a half after it started. Alberquerque has imposed water use limits on its residents, and El Paso, which gets half its water from Elephant Butte, has been urging its residents since May to use less water. In the meantime, the city is relying on a desalinization plant to get water to its residents. Desalination plants are primarily used for seawater in coastal areas.

The effects of the drought go past residential water needs, however. The low water levels in the Rio Grande have strained the river’s fish and mollusks, with scientists scrambling to save as many endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows as possible from the drying river. The species is doing worse now than it did when conservation efforts began ten years ago, in part due to the drought. Grass has dried up and hay prices have skyrocketed, forcing ranchers to sell their cattle, which in turn has helped shrink the U.S. cattle herd to the smallest it’s been in at least four decades. Pecan and chile growers, too, are having trouble irrigating their crops, with some pecan growers trimming their trees to the trunks and drilling new wells in an attempt to draw more water.

The New Mexico drought may soon threaten other states as well — a recent federal study found that increasing chances of prolonged drought in the state will threaten New Mexico’s legal obligation to provide water to Texas and Colorado. This month, New Mexico got three weeks of summer monsoons — rain that was greatly needed but “far from enough” to alleviate the state’s drought.