Amid driest conditions on record, New Mexico sweats every spark

In its third straight year of drought, New Mexico is seeing the warmest, driest conditions on record. Seven wildfires are now burning, and dry storms are yielding lightning strikes but little rain. Relief is unlikely, forecasters say.

Susan Montoya Bryan/AP/File
The Rio Grande flows around large sand bars in Bernalillo, N.M., Thursday, May 9. In its third consecutive year of drought, New Mexico is currently experiencing the warmest, driest conditions on record.

New Mexico is a tinderbox ready to spark. In its third consecutive year of drought, the state is currently experiencing the warmest, driest conditions on record.

According to New Mexico state climatologist David DuBois, the trees, plants, and wildlife in more than 93 percent of the state are struggling to survive in extreme or exceptional drought conditions.

The combination of drought and triple-digit temperatures is creating fuels so dry that the smallest spark creates a flame, and minutes later another deadly inferno is raging in the Southwest.

On June 30, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a wildfire firefighting unit based in Prescott, Ariz., died working the front lines of a fire outside Yarnell, Ariz. The wind shifted suddenly, leaving them with little or no time to seek shelter. A few weeks earlier, the Granite Mountain Hotshots were in New Mexico fighting the Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez Mountains, alongside members of the Santa Fe Fire Department's Atalaya Hand Crew.

As firefighters mourn the loss of their friends, they continue to fight seven wildfires actively burning in New Mexico, while watching the skies for rain. They hear thunder and their hearts pound with hope for relief from the Southwest monsoons. Instead, the storms bring cloud-to-ground lightning but little moisture, increasing the possibility of even more wildfires.

The Southwest monsoons

The Southwest monsoons start in northern Mexico, which receives moisture from two sides: California and the Gulf of Mexico. When the land reaches its peak of heat late in the summer months, often with triple-digit temperatures, the winds change direction and the monsoons begin.

But Dr. DuBois, the state's climatologist, has few encouraging words for those waiting for the Southwest monsoons.

"There is a chance of some improvement in the situation in the southwest portion of the state, a glimmer of hope, but not for the central and eastern portions of New Mexico," DuBois said in a recent interview. "Some areas have already received good precipitation, but it may take more than a year of rains to bring the forage back that is necessary for livestock and wildlife."

DuBois is working closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center in an effort to advise ranchers, city managers, wildlife groups, and wildlife refuge managers on the possibility of rain. He meets quarterly with the governor's Drought Task Force and offers a monthly webinar for residents that explains water levels and flows, and any departures from the seasonal forecast.

Competing interests

The drought, extreme heat, wildfires, and destruction are all part of the circle of life in the Southwest, says Charna Lefton, spokeswoman for the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

"In the Old West people had a popular saying about water," Ms. Lefton says. "They said whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. That's the way it's been for many years in the American West. Everyone wants to make sure their personal interests are met."

A look at the numbers goes a long way toward explaining the concern. According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), in 2012 there were 11 weather and climate disasters that caused damage exceeding $1 billion each in the US, including the ongoing drought in the Southwest.

In addition to cities, those competing for the dwindling water supply include ranchers, who are often forced to sell their herds early to avoid the loss from the drought; farmers, who are dependent on water for their crops; animal activists fighting to protect endangered species struggling to survive as lakes go dry; and managers of the state's nine wildlife refuges.

Wildlife refuges

According to Rob Larrañaga, a wildlife refuge manager for the Northern New Mexico Wildlife Refuge Complex, numerous lakes and wells are drying up on the wildlife refuges in New Mexico, and if the drought continues the consequences could change migration patterns for the many species of migrating birds that use New Mexico as a resting stop before moving on to Mexico.

"One lake at the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, Maxwell 13, went dry in May, and this lake hasn't been dry since 1978," Mr. Larrañaga explains. The lake received rain a week later. However, Crane Lake, a popular tourist spot at the Las Vegas Wildlife Refuge, went dry on March 15 and remains dry.

The Las Vegas Wildlife Refuge has solar-powered wells for the elk population, and the bald eagles remained for the summer, but the geese and ducks that use the refuge on their annual migration continued on their flight seeking water.

"We do not have the grains or water required for their habitat," Larrañaga explains. This is the second year that the Las Vegas Wildlife Refuge was unable to plant crops and the third year for the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.

The Las Vegas Wildlife Refuge is part of the Storey Lake Water Users Association, and the refuge is at the bottom of the list for use of water, according to Tom Harvey, wildlife refuge superviser for Arizona and New Mexico. The lake is low, and the refuge hasn't received water allocations for two years. 

"When discussing the fact that the lakes are dry, it's important to remember the many fish these lakes support, as well, and some fish are endangered species," Mr. Harvey says. "The Greater Sandhill Crane, which uses the wetlands as a breeding ground, has decreased in numbers by 10 percent." Harvey stressed that they have not seen any animals dying from starvation or dehydration.

Disagreements over water are as common as resources are limited in states with a desert climate. "Sometimes states will disagree with each other about the amount of water they should receive from a river, and sometimes environmental organizations decide to challenge decisions regarding water issues," Harvey explains. Some of these disagreements will be played out in court as resources become scarce, he says.

"In recent times we've had a greater need for water, particularly with growing urban areas," Harvey says. "It's always a balancing act when discussing the limited amounts of water in the West."

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