The Heat Is Online

Two-Year Drought Stresses New Mexico

Severe drought a strain on New Mexico

State struggles to conserve water

The Boston Globe, June 16, 2002

SANTA FE - An auto dealership spray-painted its dead grass green. Some hotels are not changing sheets every day. And farmers and ranchers are plowing their fields under and selling off their livestock.

The two-year drought gripping the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states has been severe even for a desert state like New Mexico.

The past year has been the sixth-driest in New Mexico in more than a century, with the state getting less than half the annual average of 13.4 inches of rain. Snowfall during the winter was also off by more than half.

Drought-induced wildfires already have burned more than 1.4 million acres nationwide this year, including 180,000 in New Mexico.

Whole forests in some areas have been closed to visitors to reduce the risk of fire. Cities and towns in New Mexico are banning fireworks.

The Navajos have advised livestock owners to sell their sheep, cattle, and horses to avoid starvation. Around the state, rangeland grasses that are usually greening at this time of year are yellow and dormant, or dead.

Farmers who use well water are pumping furiously to keep their wheat, alfalfa, and corn growing. Some farmers have plowed their fields under.

''We're dry. Dry, dry, dry,'' said Bill Neish, a county agricultural specialist in Moriarty. ''You'd think it was December. We're really having to pump our wells hard.''

In Santa Fe, where reservoirs are at 25 percent capacity, or less than half the normal level for this time of year, residents are not allowed to water trees more than once a week. One furniture store planted freeze-dried dead evergreens that look good and don't need watering.

Many people are putting plenty of mulch around plants to preserve moisture, installing low-flow toilets provided by the city, and fixing leaks.

Hotels in Santa Fe and other year-round tourist destinations in New Mexico are doing their share to conserve.

Ron Rockelein, general manager of the Hilton of Santa Fe, said the hotel is installing low-flow toilets and shower heads, cutting back on landscaping and using leftover banquet ice to water parched plants.

Some hotels are changing sheets only once every four days for extended visitors and are asking guests to reuse towels.

Deb Simone, a 47-year-old Colorado Springs, Colo., resident visiting Santa Fe, said she was aware of the drought in the Southwest but did not realize the magnitude of it.

''I've never been asked to reuse my towels before,'' she said. But she added: ''I don't mind if it helps.''

Sam Wheeler, a 55-year-old Los Angeles resident, said: ''There are signs everywhere explaining the water situation here. It would be irresponsible to ignore them.''

In Las Vegas, a tourist town 65 miles southeast of Santa Fe, many restaurants have been asked to use paper plates and plastic cups rather than use water to wash the dishes.

''I had one woman ask for a glass cup for her wine, but that's been it. We're happy to do what we can, and the customers don't mind,'' said Reynaldo Lucero, manager of a K-Bob's Steakhouse.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002.