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As Farms Bite the Dust, "Megadrought" May Be the New Normal in the Southwest

My current perch in Placitas, New Mexico feels like a front-row seat to the apocalypse.

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Despite his successes, which included a victory at the New Mexico Supreme Court, many wells were drilled, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, dropping the water table to the point at which many springs in Placitas began running dry, along with the acequias they feed. Montgomery's neighbors, with the turn of a tap, can water their grass and wash their cars thanks to the wells that killed the spring that feeds his acequia. But it's only a matter of time, he told me, until they feel his pain.  

"At that point all the bedroom community types will realize that the real estate people have bamboozled them, and most of us too," he said, referring to the Placitas real estate boom of the late 20th century.  

Harold Trujillo is member of an acequia near Mora, New Mexico. All the acequias in his Sangre de Cristo mountain valley, near the headwaters of the Pecos River, are dry, he told me by phone. Before this year, the worst he remembered was 2002, which, according to the Colorado state engineer's office was the region's driest year in the last 300.  

"In 2002 there were natural ponds that never dried up. Cows could drink out of them. Now those ponds are dry. People have been digging them deeper with backhoes to get them to fill with water," Trujillo said.  

Tempers are getting short. Trujillo said he was verbally threatened last weekend at Morphy Lake, the reservoir his acequia association helped build.  

"We were opening Morphy Lake to get water in the river. These people wanted us to open it more, so more water would flow into the river. But we can't. We need to save some water for July and August, because we don't know if it's going to rain or not."  

Even if the next megadrought has already begun, deBuys says, we wouldn't know it yet. "The character of a drought becomes clear only retrospectively." Either way, he suggests, our decisions for the future should be the same.  

"Building resilience against drought into the region's water systems and cultural practices would be a wise course, irrespective of the cause or timing of the next emergency," he writes.  

To that end, Lynn Montgomery is scraping together the resources to re-tool his farm to be more efficient with water. He's installed a holding tank, in which he'll be able to store precious acequia flow in future years, before it goes dry again. And he's switching from traditional flood irrigation, the way it's always been done in Placitas, to more efficient drip tape. It remains to be seen whether his adaptations, and his resilience, will be enough to help him face the new normal. 

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

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