Drought, Climate, Elephant Butte Water Storage

and the future of water storage for the lower Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico.
By Robert W. Endlich
Elephant Butte Dam and Landscape in New Mexico. Photo by U.S. Army Corps

Laura Paskus’ 3-part series on the current drought, its effects on farmers and residents, and the coming US Supreme Court decision, starts with a question, ”Elephant Butte is at 3 percent capacity; what happens next?” Let me introduce measurements, missing from Paskus’ series: Elephant Butte Lake levels, temperature, rainfall, and climate patterns. My analysis: nothing in the current meteorological/climatological situation is worse than the past century. History and study show that either water availability must increase, or water costs will increase.

Paskus’ sense of alarm with recent Elephant Butte Reservoir capacity falling to 3% implies impending catastrophe, but historic data show frequent episodes where the reservoir capacity in the 1950s, 60s and 70s fell below 1%, as low as 0.1%, on 6 August 1954. Put another way, the recent capacity was 22 TIMES MORE than the low reached in 1954. We know our rainfall and snowfall here are controlled by El Nino and La Nina. Data show a 60-year period of increased El Ninos and rainfall, with more La Ninas and drought in between. This is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the PDO.

Figure 1. Blue arrow right, shows September 2018, at 62,573 acre-feet capacity, or 3.2% in Elephant Butte Reservoir. Six red arrows show low points and dates of low capacities, well below the 2018 figure during previous PDO-cold period, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, some ~60 years ago.

Paskus’ series makes repeated reference to the wet years of the 1980s and 90s, seemingly as if this was somehow an average, and that we are headed into an abyss of drought and increasing temperatures. Records suggest simply a return from PDO-warm of the 80s and 90s to the current PDO-cold. The current 3% of capacity at Elephant Butte reflects the present PDO-cold regime, which started in the early 2000s, with more frequent La Ninas.

Figure 2. The National Weather Service diagnostic graphic for El Nino, top, and La Nina, bottom, for the eastern Pacific and North America, http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/ensocycle/nawinter.shtml Top shows when El Nino is present, wet conditions occur from California to the Carolinas to Florida. Bottom shows when La Nina is present, dry conditions occur from Arizona to South Carolina and Florida. This has important implications for the Western states, especially New Mexico.

A hundred years of rainfall records at Jornada Range shows precipitation increasing, not decreasing here.

Figure 3. This hundred year plot of precipitation from the Jornada Experimental Range, 20 miles north of Las Cruces, NM, not far from Elephant Butte Reservoir, shows rainfall increasing over the period, https://jornada.nmsu.edu/content/usda-noaa-nws-monthly-summary-climatological-data

Western Regional Climate Center records for Columbus and Orogrande show maximum temperatures occurred during the dust bowl years, as do those for Cimarron and Santa Rosa, while Tucumcari’s peaked in 1918.

Figure 4. Temperature records from the Western Regional Climate Center for, top, Columbus, NM, http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/cliMAIN.pl?nm2024 southwest of Elephant Butte Reservoir, and bottom, Orogrande, NM, http://www.wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/cliMAIN.pl?nmorog southeast of the reservoir, both show temperatures, plotted in blue, and carbon dioxide data, plotted in red. The stations show maximum temperatures in the area occurred during the Dust Bowl years.

A recently-installed USCRN station on Jornada Range shows temperatures falling 3F since 2007.

Figure 5. This is the temperature plot from the United States Climate Research Network station at Jornada Range, https://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/uscrn/products/monthly01/CRNM0102-NM_Las_Cruces_20_N.txt .

This station has a short period of record, but it has many desirable attributes, triple redundant temperatures from aspirated shields and a location far from the urban heat island which affects many other sites. Most importantly, it shows that since 2007, temperatures here are falling sharply, much in contrast with Paskus’ series, which claims rapidly increasing temperatures.

Paskus cites rapidly increasing temperatures in western mountains, but an article in Geophysical Research Letters, Artificial amplification of warming trends across the mountains of the western United States https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2014GL062803 found a large warm bias in the USDA’S SNOTEL network…sited in western mountains.

Paskus cites climate models for predictions of 4-6F temperature increases by 2100. The “positive feedback” in such models doesn’t exist in the real world. Those models forecast 3 times the observed current warming for the tropics; and a predicted “hot spot” at 30,000 feet that does not exist.

Figure 6. Right, the summary of all modeled forcings as portrayed in the literature from the US Climate Change Science Program, which shows the modeled hot spot about 11 km, or about 30,000 ft above sea level which extends to 30N, about the latitude of southern New Mexico. On the left are the measurements from millions of radiosonde balloons and satellite observations of temperatures. The hot spot does not exist in the real world. http://joannenova.com.au/2012/01/dr-david-evans-the-skeptics-case/

Further, Al Gore’s predicted disappearance of arctic ice in 2007 was a complete failure.  The minimum arctic ice volumes have been over 4,900 cubic kilometers, and this year’s minimum was 6,000 cubic kilometers of ice.

Paskus attributes massive forest fires such as the 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez to climate change, but she fails to consider that limiting forest fires caused an over-abundance and crowding of over-ripe pines causing a subsequent infestation of pine bark beetles.  The beetles killed the pines providing a huge source of dry fuel.

Between Las Cruces and Los Angeles, I-10 crosses the Central Arizona Project aqueducts and the California aqueduct system. Phoenix has numerous golf courses, waterfalls, fountains, parks, and other lush areas which seemingly belie the hot Sonoran Desert just a few miles away. Similar features are found in Los Angeles and southern California. The foresight of Stewart and Morris Udall resulted in the Central Arizona Project (CAP) providing water for central Arizona. Where is a similar proposal for New Mexico from Stewart Udall’s son, Tom Udall?

Paskus cites EBID’s Gary Esslinger’s idea of diverting water from the Mississippi River, but diverting some spring runoff of the Arkansas River in Colorado might be more practical and appealing. Why not use nuclear power to desalinate Sea of Cortez or Gulf of Mexico water and pump fresh water uphill for use in eastern, central, and southern New Mexico?

Esslinger is right, we need to stop consuming more water than is available in the long term from Rio Grande flow and ground water. He calls it a “death spiral.” This case is also made by Neal Ackerly in NMSU Water Resources Research Institute Publication 43. We need to enhance water resources for New Mexico, make water for agricultural use too expensive for farmers here, or wait for a really catastrophic event, such as the drought of the late 1600s during the Little Ice Age, which forced the Spanish padres to abandon the AbÓ settlement.

Author: Robert Endlich

Robert W. Endlich served as Weather Officer in the USAF for 21 Years. From 1984-1993, he provided toxic corridor and laser propagation support to the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range. He has published in the technical literature and worked as software test engineer. He was elected to Chi Epsilon Pi, the national Meteorology Honor Society, while a Basic Meteorology student at Texas A&M University. He has a BA degree in Geology from Rutgers University and an MS in Meteorology from the Pennsylvania State University.