Part 1: The crisis comes to a head
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.
As early as 7:30 in the morning of Saturday, May 1, cars and ATVs began arriving in the parking lot of the VFW Post 1389 in Elephant Butte, a tiny municipality in Sierra County, New Mexico. By 9 a.m. an estimated 100 vehicles, some pulling boats, were lined up, awaiting the start of the “H2O Crisis Parade Rally.” The drivers and their passengers—locals whose businesses depended on the patronage of Elephant Butte Lake campers, boaters, sports fishers, water skiers and paddlers of all kinds, or recreationalists themselves—had answered an “urgent call” to “stop the USBR from draining down the lake an additional 50 feet in elevation.”
This was how a flyer circulating in Sierra County described a section of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 2021 Operating Plan for the Rio Grande, released April 15 by the BOR’s Albuquerque office. The plan dictated the timing and quantity of irrigation water to be released from the lake, which had been created by the damming of the Rio Grande in 1916 to store irrigation water intended to convert the desert lands of southern New Mexico to agricultural use.
The unsigned flyer warned that the BOR planned on “taking 7/8ths of the lake away,” without explaining how that calculation had been derived. “Think of it,” the flyer instructed. “NO boat ramp, NO marinas, NO lake boating, NO healthy fish, NO town, NO fun.”
The flyer’s anonymous author did not acknowledge the role played by overconsumption of dwindling water supplies by the Western states nor the relationship between America’s dependence on fossil fuels and the pattern of lessening precipitation throughout the Southwest. The BOR was entirely to blame.
Concern for the economic health of Elephant Butte, a community of about 1,500 full-time residents, was understandable. In normal times, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, home to the 40-mile-long lake, could draw as many as 100,000 visitors on a summer weekend and up to 225,000 for Fourth of July celebrations, according to the Elephant Butte Chamber of Commerce. Already hurting financially from COVID-19 restrictions that saw New Mexico’s state parks closed to camping and even day use for most of the summer of 2020, Elephant Butte businesses might not be able to survive another bust of a season caused by lake levels too depleted to enable customary recreational activity.
“It’s a crisis,” agreed Gary Esslinger, the manager-treasurer of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, a quasi-governmental agency that had been created in 1906 as a mechanism to pay back the federal government for the anticipated construction of the Elephant Butte Dam through water usage fees to be charged southern New Mexico farmers. EBID had also assumed responsibility for managing the delivery of irrigation waters stored in the resulting reservoir lake to Mexico and, later, to Texas. Esslinger had watched the slow-walking arrival of the present crisis since 2003, the last year when Elephant Butte Lake held sufficient water to allow for a “normal” release, as defined by the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate agreement governing the equitable allocation of the waters of the Rio Grande Basin between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. (Mexico’s rights to 60,000 acre feet of the river’s water annually were and are governed by a 1906 international treaty with the United States.)
Without these legal understandings and commitments, there would be no Rio Grande waters to apportion, New Mexico water law authority Max Yeh observed. “After all, if water in the river were simply awarded to the first taker—following both New Mexico and Colorado water law—Colorado would dam up the river and not allow any flow at all to us,” Yeh, a longtime Sierra County resident (who is also president of the board of the Sierra County Sun), pointed out. “New Mexico only has river water because of the Compact.”
THE NEW NORMAL
Under the leadership of Gary Esslinger since 1987, EBID had been working diligently for years to lessen the impact of reduced water availability on its more than 6,500-member farmers in southern New Mexico’s Rincon and Mesilla valleys. It had developed ever more sophisticated ways to measure, deliver and conserve Rio Grande flows out of Elephant Butte Lake through its 300 miles of canals and 600 miles of drains. Its innovations ranged from real-time water data collection using sophisticated field monitoring instrumentation to storm water harvesting to delivery-infrastructure improvements. EBID’s objective was to provide its members with what the district’s longtime hydrology and civil engineering consultant J. Phillip King called a “soft landing”—in other words, EBID sought to maximize irrigation water even in the face of decreasing supplies in order to help farmers make the transition to what might be a “new normal.”
EBID was an exemplar among the state’s water managers in its clear-eyed and proactive approach to minimizing the effects of the present megadrought and other climate changes that could be signals that New Mexico was entering a period of aridification. Esslinger and King could recite chapter and verse of how other state and federal water authorities and elected leaders had failed to grapple with these conditions, starting with the fact that in 2020 New Mexico had recorded a shortfall of 96,000 acre feet in Compact-required water deliveries to southern New Mexico and Texas and ending with the long-overdue need for statewide reform of water management laws, practices and oversight.
Because political power was concentrated in the more populous central part of the state, there was no civic or elected leaders in southern New Mexico who had the clout, or state water managers who had the backbone, to prioritize the interests of the residents and economy of Elephant Butte Irrigation District over those of water users north of Socorro, New Mexico, Esslinger and King averred. Elephant Butte Lake State Park, for example, annually provided a significant portion of the operating revenues of the entire state park system—an asset essential to the quality of life in New Mexico and to the state’s tourism industry. Yet both the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer and the Albuquerque office of the BOR steadfastly operated on the premise that recreational use of Elephant Butte Lake was secondary to its original and primary purpose as New Mexico’s largest irrigation reservoir.
When the BOR’s Albuquerque office released its 2021 operating plan for the Rio Grande in mid April, the lake was at 11 percent capacity, meaning it held about 245,000 acre feet of water. The BOR forecast that the lake’s water supply would peak before irrigation releases at around 350,000 acre feet. This was less than half of the 790,000 acre feet of “project water” required for a “normal” release downstream from Elephant Butte Lake by the Rio Grande Compact, which had been signed in 1938—pre-climate change. Since Compact deliveries to Texas took priority, EBID’s farmers and Elephant Butte Lake recreationalists would bear the brunt of dramatically reduced water supply.
There were several reasons why the BOR believed 2021 inflows to the lake would be dismal. For the second year in a row, spring runoff of snowpack in Colorado (the location of the Rio Grande’s headwater) and New Mexico was expected to be below average. Drought-induced low soil moisture levels meant that much of the melting snow would be absorbed or evaporated before reaching the Rio Grande. Second, water reserves stored in upstate reservoirs like El Vado, Heron and Abiquiú lakes to be delivered downstream to meet Compact requirements were limited or nonexistent; the Compact forbade such storage when Elephant Butte Lake dropped below 400,000 acre feet. Even the Six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos, whose treaty rights to irrigation water were considered “prior and paramount” by the Compact, had a minimal supply of water that the BOR could lease to supplement river flows.
As a consequence, EBID planned to shorten its irrigation season to about 35 days (from near the end of May to the end of June) and restrict its farmers’ water allocation to a scant four inches per acre, enough for a single irrigation of a member’s fields, as opposed to the three feet of water per acre allocated farmers over four or five months during a “normal” release. To cope, southern New Mexican farmers had two options. “They can either take land out of production and use reduced water to irrigate just their productive land; or they can pump more groundwater, which is very expensive,” Phil King explained. “Our farmers will do both.”
Even with EBID’s severe restrictions on members’ water usage, the BOR had forecast that, come the middle of August, the storage pool remaining in Elephant Butte Lake would be between 20,000 and 25,000 acre feet. This represented about 1 percent of the lake’s 2.1 million-acre feet of capacity.
When Neal B. Brown, president of Lago Rico Inc., owner of Elephant Butte Lake’s two marinas, learned of this “horrific” forecast, he immediately envisioned a catastrophe similar to that caused by a drought that began in the late 1940s. It reduced water levels in Elephant Butte Lake in the first half of the 1950s to well below 10,000 acre feet, their lowest levels since the reservoir began filling after the completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916. “The water level reached its lowest point in 1954,” Brown wrote in a paper he presented to New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute’s 55th Annual New Mexico Water Conference. The consequences were disastrous:
Recreation was gone. . . . Stories from people . . . at the time recount how miserable things were. They tell how the lake bed was covered with dead fish and rotting algae. The smell was horrible and parents would not let their children go out there because they were afraid they would catch some disease. People left the area and they never returned.
Brown’s paper was titled “Permanent Storage at Elephant Butte: Meeting the Needs of Recreationalists.” Written and presented in 2010, it offered a solution to the cyclical rise and fall of the lake’s water levels that had worked during the drought years of the 1970s. At the urging of a united coalition of local businesspeople and local, state and federal elected leaders, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation in 1974 mandating the establishment of a “minimum reserve pool” of 50,000 acre feet at Elephant Butte Lake. Unfortunately, the mandate lapsed after 10 years. The re-establishment of a minimum reserve pool on a permanent basis seemed to be what was needed to protect Sierra County’s tourism and recreational industries again during New Mexico’s current megadrought, which was approaching its third decade. There was just one problem. “It’s really easy to create a pool,” EBID hydrologist Phil King liked to say, meaning that the legal structures to do so were in place. “But it is hard to find water to put in it.”
Brown had started Lago Rico in 1994 with the purchase of Marina del Sur. Only once before had he been required to take drastic measures to stay in business. Lago Rico had had to move the Dam Site Marina, its second set of floating docks, to deeper waters near the dam literally to keep the marina afloat in 2018, when water stored in the lake fell after irrigation season to 58,000 acre feet. This was the lowest water level since 1972, according to Phil King, who kept his own spreadsheets that meticulously recorded official BOR water storage data for the reservoir going all the way back to Elephant Butte Dam’s completion. Fearing that there would not be deep enough water in 2021 to make the labor-intensive relocation of his marinas worthwhile, even using his own cranes, Neal Brown sent a letter on April 19 to Lago Rico’s boat slip renters, informing them that they would have to remove their boats by July 5. That was the date he predicted his marinas would be forced by near-record low water levels to close for the summer.
PRESSURE AND PRAYERS
Brown also got in touch with Denise Addie, a well-known community events organizer and resident of Caballo, New Mexico, home to Caballo Lake, a second reservoir located in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. “Neal said we’re going to have to put the marinas ‘on dirt,’” Addie reported at a public meeting of the Sierra County Democratic Party in mid-May. “He asked for my help.” Addie decided to organize the “H2O Crisis Rally Parade.”
The day before the parade, Addie posted on her personal Facebook page the following explanation of why she had answered Brown’s plea to mobilize public demand to “save the lake”:
This H2O Crisis Parade Rally isn’t all about the lake and the recreation that we enjoy there! It is about managing the water because when the lake is dry . . . the ecological system in the lake dies, the wildlife dies because they can’t find water, the bird watching goes away because the birds leave, the tourists that use the lake leave, which makes it hard for our local businesses to survive, so maybe some of them close, people move out of our community, the GRT [sales tax revenue] goes down, property values go down, is everyone getting the picture, it is all much, much bigger than any of us. So, we ALL need to band together and try to come up with a solution to help make our H2O Crisis manageable.
Among the locals who responded to Addie’s call to action were the two New Mexico legislators whose districts encompassed Sierra County: Senator Crystal Diamond (R-District 35) and Representative Rebecca Dow (R-District 38). Both lived in Truth or Consequences, the county seat located within a 10 minutes’ drive of Elephant Butte Lake. Now in her third term as a state representative and rumored to harbor ambitions of running for governor in 2022, Dow did more than show up at the May 1 rally. She had begun to organize a statewide dialogue to be held on May 7 via Zoom. “What we’re asking is that the water users come together and talk about solutions,” she said to KOB 4, an Albuquerque television station on April 29. “We need to talk about the short-term solutions for this season and long-term water management for the state.” Otherwise, Dow warned, Elephant Butte Lake would “basically be a swollen river by July 5.”
At the approach of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, Elephant Butte stakeholders seemed to believe that prospects had brightened for the summer recreational season at the lake. Jennifer Faler, the BOR’s Albuquerque area manager, had publicly pledged to the Sierra County Commission at the commission’s May 18 meeting that she would not allow the reserve pool in the lake to fall below 10,000 acre feet. This was the minimum capacity the New Mexico Fish and Game Department had calculated was needed to avoid a fish kill, Mary Carson, Faler’s spokesperson, explained. This was not a concession to public sentiment, but a precaution to avoid damaging dam infrastructure at Elephant Butte and Caballo.
The day after Faller’s briefing of the county commissioners, the Elephant Butte Chamber of Commerce announced on its Facebook page: “The water is coming in at a faster rate than expected, so the marinas will not have to close this season.” Out of an abundance of caution, Lago Rico decided to move its Dam Site Marina to relatively deeper waters, while confirming the Chamber’s announcement that it expected that its two marinas would be able to withstand any future drops in the lake level and remain open for the season. In early June, Representative Dow reported on her official Facebook page that “state and federal bureaucrats have verbally updated their projections.” Now, she said, they were projecting that the lake would remain filled to 3 percent capacity at the end of the irrigation season. “With a good monsoon season, levels could be higher,” Dow offered. “Pray for rain!”
EBID’s Gary Esslinger was less optimistic. Knowing that Texas would continue to order irrigation water from Elephant Butte and Caballo lakes until around August 15, he still expected the level of the lake to drop to 20,000 acre feet—the BOR’s original projection. As late as the Fourth of July weekend, BOR spokesperson Mary Carson reiterated to the Santa Fe New Mexican the bureau’s forecast that Elephant Butte Lake would fall to 1 percent of capacity sometime in August.
Representative Dow’s early June re-assessment of the situation had been accurate in one respect. The BOR had not factored monsoon rainfall into its 2021 water-supply projections, preferring to err on the conservative side, rather than over-promise farmers, who used those projections to plot their crop production. Any amount of precipitation would help EBID’s members, observed Esslinger, who found it providential that rain had begun to fall in Sierra County the day EBID “closed down our headings” (or irrigation gates) and had not let up for several days. The veteran water manager thought it too early to say whether the annual monsoon season would raise the level of Elephant Butte Lake. Even if it did, the blessing of rain would offer only a temporary fix.
Esslinger gave Rebecca Dow a lot of credit for persuading “people all up and down the river”—ranging from representatives of the BOR, the Office of the State Engineer and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to staffers sent by southern New Mexico’s U.S. Congresswoman Yvette Herrell—to come together on May 7 to discuss how to create and maintain a minimum recreational pool at Elephant Butte Lake. But, in the 40-plus years he had worked at the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, he had seen similar water-management crises “go away” without resolution. He and Phil King talked about the rule of inertia all the time. “It’s just that nobody does anything until things get bad enough,” King explained, “and I hate to say it: things are pretty bad but apparently they aren’t bad enough.”
Would the May 7 summit prove the exception to the rule and be a catalyst for statewide water management reform? Or, as Esslinger and King suspected, would nothing be done “until the lake starts killing fish.”
Additional research and interviewing by Kathleen Sloan and Debora Nicoll
Series sources: Sierra County Sun interviews with Neal Brown, Mary Carson, Gary Esslinger, J. Phillip King and Rebecca Dow and recent coverage of the water level crisis at Elephant Butte Lake by the Albuquerque Journal, KOB 4, KRQE Channel 13, the Las Cruces Sun-News, the New Mexico Political Report and the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Part 2: Who’s in charge?
Part 3: A tough love solution
UPDATE: On July 7, Representative Dow announced her intention to run for the Republican nomination for New Mexico’s governor.