Correction appended

ELEPHANT BUTTE — From the base of Elephant Butte Dam, the scale of the reservoir’s decline is evident.

The high-water mark — visible way up on the gray concrete wall — shows the last time the lake reached full capacity, in the late 1990s, when a surplus of water would periodically rush through the spillway into the Rio Grande below.

“We used to drive over the dam and then dive into the lake,” Billy Jack Miller said as he piloted his boat away from the dam and toward the lake’s namesake — an elephant-shaped butte. “If you jumped now, you’d die,” he said of the treacherous drop to the water below.

Miller, 67, is a fifth-generation New Mexican who has been coming to Elephant Butte Lake since he was a boy. He moved here permanently from Santa Fe in 1999 to start a fishing company, Rio Grande Guide Service, and live out his life on the water.

“The lake used to be 44 miles long,” Miller said, expertly maneuvering the boat between the green and red buoys that guide boaters through shallow areas. “Now it’s six or seven, as the crow flies.”

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To reach the shore of Elephant Butte Lake, campers have to park on the dry lake bed due to declining water levels.

Mary Carlson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation, which manages Elephant Butte Lake and other reservoirs throughout the state, said it is now filled to just 7 percent or 8 percent of its capacity.

By August, she said, the lake is projected to be at 1 percent.

“It’s this drought,” Miller said. “It just keeps going.”

In New Mexico and across the Southwest, a two-decade drought has led to low water flows in streams and rivers and dramatically shrinking reservoirs. The steadily dropping supply of surface water has put a strain on communities that tap into it for household and business use and farmers who rely on the release of stored water to irrigate their fields.

The declining lake levels also have created concerns of recreational tourism dwindling in lake-dependent communities.

“The impact to our county is almost immeasurable,” Rio Arriba County Manager Lucia Sanchez said of the thousands of summer visitors at lakes in her sprawling county, including Heron, El Vado and Abiquiú.

“People come to hunt, fish, camp and raft. They are visiting our convenience stores, our farmers markets,” Sanchez said. “Fewer locals and visitors on the water equate to less economic activity.”

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Ed Crawford, who moved back to Elephant Butte three years ago, fishes from an exposed bit of land that appeared due to receding water levels. Crawford, who fishes at the reservoir regularly, said that bit of land hand been underwater the week before.

Carlson said almost all of the New Mexico reservoirs managed by the Bureau of Reclamation are at 20 percent of capacity or less. “The primary cause,” she said, “is continued drought.”

The effects of climate change — declining snowpack and higher temperatures — have reduced reservoir levels in the Colorado River Basin over the past 20 years, which subsequently reduces flows to New Mexico, said Los Alamos National Laboratory hydrologist Katrina Bennett. “That water isn’t being replenished. That is a huge concern.”

Cody Johnson, a spokesman with the New Mexico Tourism Department, said boating and other lakeside activities are a small percentage of the state’s overall tourism, but they are crucial for the economies of certain communities.

“It certainly means a great deal to communities like Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences that rely on that nearby lake recreation,” Johnson said.

Neal Brown, owner of Marina Del Sur at Elephant Butte, made similar remarks. “I don’t think there is anyone else in the state as dependent on the water” as those two towns, he said.

Elephant Butte is a town tied to its reservoir. When the dam was completed in 1916, it was the largest in the world. Today, Elephant Butte Lake remains the largest body of water in New Mexico and a significant source of tourism for Sierra County and the state.

Evaristo Giron, southwest regional manager of New Mexico State Parks, estimated the number of people who flock to the popular Elephant Butte State Park, which lies along the lake: “Roughly 1 million visitors a year.”

“Three-fourths of my clients are out of state,” he added.

Hundreds of recreational vehicles were parked near the water one day last week in preparation for the Fourth of July, with campers taking advantage of new real estate around the lake created by the declining water levels.

“They will be four deep by the weekend,” Miller said of the RVs.

Brown noted the economic importance of the holiday weekend: “It’s our Christmas,” he said.

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Neal Brown, owner of Marina Del Sur at Elephant Butte, speaks from one of his boats about the struggles of running a business on an ever-fluctuating reservoir.

Elephant Butte Lake — vast, shallow and subjected to Southern New Mexico’s arid heat — has the highest evaporation rate of any significant reservoir in the state.

“We don’t have that problem,” said Nicole Bridge, manager of Sims Marina at 400-foot-deep Navajo Lake, near Farmington in Northern New Mexico. “Last time I checked, we were above 60 percent.”

Jeff Marks, an Albuquerque resident who likes to go to nearby Cochiti Lake to escape the summer heat, said, “I think they should keep the water in the northern lakes. Deeper and cooler make more sense.”

Many in the southern part of the state see the problem not as where to store the water but how to manage it.

State Rep. Rebecca Dow, a Republican from Truth or Consequences, said watershed restoration, vegetation management and infrastructure need to be improved to enhance water delivery throughout the state.

“Water is life. What happens at Elephant Butte will soon be happening to a lake and reservoir near you if we do not do large-scale interventions,” Dow said.

Elephant Butte Mayor Edna Trager, speaking from City Hall about the root causes of the reservoir’s decline, said she wonders at “what point is something going to be done to mitigate it.”

The mayor and local business owners like Brown have been proponents of a “minimum pool” in the lake — a set amount of water to ensure it doesn’t fall to the 1 percent projected later this summer.

“I would propose around 400,000 acre-feet,” Brown said. “We need to come up with a plan on how to deal with it and not be a victim to it.”

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, boiled down the difficulty of keeping reservoirs filled to a higher capacity.

“If you shut down all the irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Valley for a single year, that might save roughly 200,000 acre-feet,” Fleck said. He noted the area includes the heavily populated Bernalillo County as well as Sandoval, Valencia and Socorro counties.

The water savings would not be enough to get Elephant Butte to 400,000 acre-feet, he said.

“We want to blame the problem on some upstream water management. … The reality is that we are all going to have to use less water,” he said. “Ultimately, everyone has less water to work with.”

It’s a disappointment for Ed Crawford, a former track and field coach at New Mexico State University who said he moved back to the town of Elephant Butte three years ago to be near the water.

“I love to fish and was looking to be in warmer weather,” he said, casting a lure from a small island that recently emerged as lake levels fell. “Now I’m like, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ I came back to an empty lake.”

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A woman paddles toward the low-lying shoreline at Elephant Butte Lake on Wednesday afternoon.

For Miller, whose grandfather started visiting Elephant Butte in the 1930s, the lake is essential, even if it is low.

“Even at 7 percent, that’s still a lot of water,” Miller said, gliding in his boat past a few other fishermen toward the site where he said a “near-perfect” mastodon fossil was found years back.

“I’m out here 300 days a year,” said Miller, a former civil engineer who retired early to be by the water.

“If I’m off the lake for three days, I start having withdrawals.”

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly indicated that all of the state's reservoirs managed by the Bureau of Reclamation are at 20 percent of capacity or less. Mary Carlson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation, said that almost all of the New Mexico reservoirs managed by the Bureau of Reclamation are at 20 percent of capacity or less.

(8) comments

Lynn k Allen

We have come to the place where we should consider saving evaporation by accepted and proven measures. Installing thin plastic floaters has been done and could be helpful in reducing evaporation on reservoirs. Yes, it is a large surface and a big project, but water could be saved with proven devices.

Wikipedia has studies search

Evaporation suppession in water reservoirs covered with self-assembling floating elements

They cover the surface preventing evaporation & can be removed. Not chemicals or permanent fixed cover.

mark Coble

Again, NO mention of our star and solar cycles or solar forcing. Weakening magnetosphere? Increased cosmic rays? Polar shifts? Climate change deniers WON'T talk about the sun, why? They deny our star controls the weather and climate. Look it up yourself as you will never see it in SFNM as they will support coming climate change lockdown?!

Lynn k Allen

Reduce frustration by looking for ways to be helpful & helping to make changes we are looking for.

Richard Irell

Scientists do talk about the effect of solar cycles, etc as possible contributors to climate change and reject them as having significance.

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/solar-events-news/Does-the-Solar-Cycle-Affect-Earths-Climate.html

Khal Spencer

Not as significant on the short term, but significant on the intermediate and long term. Maybe Professor Coble can tell us what field his Ph.D. is in.

I suggest people read the link, which is quite good. But the bottom line is that, to quote the article, "...The short term changes in solar irradiance are not strong enough to have a long term influence on Earth's climate. Sustained changes in solar radiance – that is changes that occur over decades or centuries – could potentially have an effect on Earth's climate system, which is why such information is included, along with a variety of other natural and human-driven influences, in climate models."

The increase in atmospheric Tyndall gas concentrations coupled with the cleanup of anthropogenic aerosols (pollutants) are major factors in anthropogenic-driven climate change. The questions remaining are fine tuning the models to try to decrease their uncertainties by better constraining sensitivity factors, reducing model grid size, etc.

Meanwhile, that lake is indeed looking more like Mudcrack City.

Devin Bent

Recreation suffers; farmers farm less; and our experts tell us that everyone has to use less water. But we read in this same newspaper that the City and the County of Santa Fe plan to grow, confident that two pipelines will allow them to pull 12,000 more acre feet per year from the Rio Grande. Less water, they think, applies to everyone but us. When these schemes fail, I have no idea what the County will do. The City will drain the wells at Buckman -- outside the city limits and much closer to the west side of the Pojoaque Valley than to the city. Others will pay for the city's profligacy.

Lynn k Allen

True observations

Alexander Brown

One can only sympathize with those losing out. It's going to get worse.

Agriculture in NM is increasingly under stress from population growth.

Limits on growth are not accepted politically. Water Rights flow uphill to the money.

The entire West is in a catastrophic drought phase. Arizona is living off California's Water Rights. NM loses to Texas in Court too regularly. Reservoirs across the west are at emergency levels that transcend States abilities to cope. Paper Water Rights have long exceeded reality.

We will see Federal Intervention. Sooner than Later. A dysfunctional heavily lobbied Congress will get this mess in it's lap.

Respect for science is at new lows. Almost no one is talking seriously about what science based water management would mean. Or the Right of a Riparian Habitat to even exist.

As is said about this kind of thinking , " a tree only has value when you cut it down"

read this and wonder why your Officials are not talking about solutions now: http://pdf.wildearthguardians.org/site/DocServer/The%20Rio%20Grande%20Rethinking%20Rivers%20Report.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0f-mtyRzektRgUgyinfOXJePk_IY310gyKAlgHan4i56BDMbEnVwrYBqo

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