NM drought sinks level of Elephant Buttes Lake

11/26/2012 11:30 AM
By Associated Press

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — The bathtub-like rings around Elephant Butte Lake's water level state the obvious: the lake is low — really low — because of the drought that has diminished snowpack runoff flowing down the Rio Grande.

The Las Cruces Sun-News (http://bit.ly/XUFvGF ) reports that downstream results for the lake near Truth or Consequences include higher irrigation pumping costs for farmers and loss of favorite fishing spots for recreational users.

"It's difficult times, and it doesn't look like it's getting any better, at least for now," said Gary Esslinger, manager of the Las Cruces-based Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

On the other hand, some kayakers said the lower level of the lake that parallels a stretch of Interstate 25 is no problem for them.

"It just makes the beach bigger," said David Davilla, a kayaker from Truth or Consequences.

The lake hit an eight-year low on Sept. 4 when it was 5 percent full, with an elevation of 4,297 feet and a water volume of 109,445 acre-feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. An acre-foot contains about 326,000 gallons.

The last time the lake was that low was in 2004, another period of drought, when the elevation was 4,294 feet, officials said.

Including 2012, there have been 19 years over the Elephant Butte Lake's nearly century-old history in which the level has been as low as this year, according to the reclamation bureau.

Phil King, New Mexico State University professor and consultant water engineer for EBID, said this year's river-water drought is even worse than in the early 2000s, when there were two severe seasons in a row. Now, EBID is about to enter its third consecutive short year. It's more akin to the period between 1954 and 1956, an extreme drought, he said.

Farmers in the Mesilla and Rincon valleys have turned to pumping groundwater the last two seasons. That adds costs and sometimes hurts crop production, and state water officials have expressed concerns about the possible long-term impact to the aquifers.

The Rio Grande near Las Cruces usually has a trickle of water in the winter, even with the reservoir dams shut off.

But not this season.

"It's not good," said Las Cruces pecan farmer Phil Arnold. "I'm 57 years old, and this is the first time in my life I remember that, for two years in a row, the water wasn't running in the river."

While some residents said there's still plenty of fishing and recreational activity on the lake, others said the drought is a negative.

Las Cruces resident Robbie Fresquez said a friend recently damaged a boat after hitting ground. The lake becomes more difficult to navigate because of submerged outcroppings.

And favorite fishing spots tend to disappear, either because the lake declines so much or because fish move elsewhere as a result of the low water, he said.

"It has a pretty big impact, as far as the lake level being low," Fresquez said. "The interest level goes down, as far as fishing and boating."


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