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In the grip of decades of drought, New Mexico’s water managers have faced tough choices this year, including ending the irrigation season earlier.
The year’s water problems began in the winter, when below-average snowpack, warm temperatures and dry soil conditions limited spring runoff.
On top of that, New Mexico owed Texas water as part of the Rio Grande Compact of previous years.
In May, the Interstate Stream Commission requested federal financial assistance from the US Department of the Interior for short-term and long-term drought relief.
At one point, New Mexico’s largest reservoir, Elephant Butte, fell and water managers feared they would see conditions not seen since the 1950s. Monsoon rains helped prevent worst-case scenarios. As of December 16, Elephant Butte was at 7.8% of capacity, which was actually an increase from 5.7% a year earlier.
Related: As water levels drop at Elephant Butte, Reclamation braces for conditions not seen since the 1950s
Most of the state was in the throes of an exceptional drought in early summer, but a decent monsoon season brought some relief. Since December 16, the United States Drought Monitor showed no exceptional drought in the state, but much of northern New Mexico still experiences extreme drought and the entire state experiences 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 hydrologic year, nearly 11 percent of New Mexico did not experience drought or abnormally dry conditions.
Related: Monsoon moisture relieves drought, but New Mexico could experience a dry winter
The monsoon humidity gave ranchers some optimism, and people like Jimbo Williams, who had sold his herd, began to recover due to the increase in vegetation. But the breeders remain cautious.
On the Colorado River, reservoirs like Lake Powell and Lake Mead record historic lows. The Western Area Power Administration is concerned that the 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 released water from reservoirs to help raise Lake Powell levels. For New Mexico, this means that the water stored in Lake Navajo was released into the San Juan River.
Without a decent spring runoff next year, dire water conditions could lead to more difficult decisions in 2022.
In the face of climate change, driven largely by anthropogenic emissions, the southwestern United States is likely to experience aridification, meaning drought conditions will become more common.