Like Lake Mead and Lake Powell along the Colorado River, New Mexico’s largest reservoir has reached alarmingly low levels. Photos taken last week at Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is located along the Rio Grande, show stark “bathtub rings” — mineral lines that show where the water levels previously sat — and huge swathes of newly exposed shore as the water keeps dropping.
As of Thursday, the water level in the reservoir sat at just above 4,291 feet (1,308 meters) — well below the August monthly average elevation of 4,347 feet (1,325 meters). The last time the reservoir was this low was in 2013, when water hit 4,286.25 feet (1,306.45 meters).
Reservoir Way Below Max Capacity
The reservoir, which is located outside of the town of Truth or Consequences in the southwestern part of the state, supplies irrigation for about 178,000 acres of farmland. At its maximum capacity, the reservoir can hold more than 2 million acre-feet of water. It’s currently holding less than 29,946.76 ha-feet.
Snowpack Usually Feeds River
The Rio Grande is usually fed by snowpack in southern Colorado, which melts into the river’s upper basin. “That gives you a steady source of water down the Rio Grande into Elephant Butte as it melts through the spring and summer,” said Tom Bird, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in El Paso. “The snow will melt the entire warm season and keep flowing down the Rio Grande into those reservoirs.”
River Dry Through Other Stretches
But the snowpack in the Upper Rio Grande River Basin was below average this year. Combined with the West’s ongoing drought and stresses on the river from overuse, the Rio Grande, which runs nearly 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) through the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, is showing serious signs of stress. In July, the river ran totally dry through a stretch of Albuquerque — the first time that has happened in decades. Elephant Butte has been at below-average levels since 2019.
‘It’s About Supply and Demand’
“We’re in the grip of a 10+ year period of below-normal precipitation, below-normal snow and rain — much drier conditions over an extended period of time,” Bird said. “It really does stress the region as far as water availability for human use because there’s just not that much to go around, and we’ve really added a lot more need than source. It’s about supply and demand — supply is getting lower, demand is not.”
Monsoons Can Help…
Monsoon season, which runs from June to late September, can help replenish the water in the reservoir. This year’s monsoons have relieved some of New Mexico’s dry conditions, which helped spread the largest wildfire in state history earlier this year. Three months ago, more than 95% of the state was in severe, extreme, or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor; last week, that number was under 65%. (These compounding intense weather events also caused a different sort of disaster: Flash floods killed four people last month after heavy rains fell on a burn scar area. )
…But This Year They Didn’t
But Bird said that much of the rain that fell this season fell in regions south of Elephant Butte, making it useless in replenishing the reservoir.
“We’re in a time right now where we’re seeing all our reservoirs, our surface water, and even our groundwater dry up, and so we’re coming into a period of time where we’ll have real critical issues with having enough water,” he said. “Until we get an extended period of normal to above-normal precipitation, that’s not going to alleviate itself.”
‘Kind of Hard to Imagine’ Relief
“We’re going to need an extended period of more precipitation across the West and Southwest to turn this around,” Bird said. “It’s kind of hard to imagine that happening, really.”
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