New Mexico Town Offers Glimpse Of Life Without Water

Jun 13, 2013
Originally published on June 13, 2013 3:12 pm

The vicious drought gripping the Southwest appears to have a bullseye on New Mexico. Wildfires are burning across the state and water is increasingly scarce. So scare, that early this month one town's well stopped delivering water completely.

Summer brings a dry, unforgiving heat to the town of Magdalena in central New Mexico. Only the occasional breeze brings relief. Making matters worse is the town's overburdened water supply.

Last month locals noticed their tap water was a little cloudy, so they called Steve Bailey, the local utility manager. When he went to inspect the city's sole underground well, he was dumbfounded.

"Looks like what has happened is our aquifer disappeared on us," Bailey said. "We were at a certain depth a year ago...and that depth is 15 feet lower than what it was."

Residents only had a 24 hour notice before they ran out of water. When the taps went dry, it was like the town turned upside down. Dera Machotka-Hafey owns Magdalena's only laundromat. Without water her she had to stop running her washing machines.

"Our business, the laundromat is completely shut down, which constitutes a large portion of our income," said Machotka-Hafey.

No income means Machotka-Hafey can't pay her bills. She's married with a four-year-old daughter and two dogs. Under these circumstances she may have to file for bankruptcy.

Standing outside City Hall after a town meeting, Thomasine Sanguedolce was equally unhappy and very concerned. She's a nurse practitioner who works at the local clinic.

"We can't flush the toilet in the clinic," said Sanguedolce. "I mean that's a huge deal for the department of health. We don't have running water, you know, washing our hands after we touch patients, that's a huge issue."

As a result the clinic closed. Those who need medical attention must drive 30 miles to the neighboring town. Sanguedolce is also doing house calls

"My life is very chaotic right now," she said. "And I'm worried about my patients."

Temperatures in the region hovered near 100 degrees this week. Those with swamp coolers, which rely on water, couldn't cool their homes. Then there's sanitation. Instead of toilets locals were using porta potties, and instead of showers — the options were sponge baths and baby wipes.

Days into the crisis, most had no choice but to adapt.

Inside her kitchen at the M&M Grill, Linda Mansell churned homemade whip cream in her blender. She switched to paper plates and plastic utensils to serve her customers and hauled in water barrels from a private well outside town.

"We really do need to learn how to conserve our water now," said Mansell. "I just learned that I could probably do this restaurant without using as much water."

Water Concerns Beyond New Mexico

Magdalena is about two hours southwest of Albuquerque. It's a town of about a thousand people, many of them retired. Locals make a modest living running businesses, working for the school or the U.S. Forest Service. In the past their well water level never dropped more than a foot per year. Utility manager Steve Bailey says finding a solid explanation for this month's sudden drop is tricky.

"It's down in the ground way below where anybody can see anything," said Bailey.

But the drought is a major factor.

New Mexico is among the worst hit in the nation. Snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has been 25 to 50 percent below average for the last three years. That means a lot less water in rivers and aquifers across the southwest.

"If there's more pumping and more demand there's less water that's gonna work it's way down into the groundwater," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Magdalena isn't alone. Other towns across New Mexico and into Texas are on the brink of catastrophe. And the problem extends nationwide. A 2013 study by the U.S. Geological Survey shows our rate of water depletion doubled in the last decade. In the arid southwest depletion rates are even higher.

A week into the water scare, Magdalena finally got some good news. The water level in their well rose just enough to start the pump back up. But only enough for a temporary fix.

The aquifer is still extremely low and if locals aren't careful they could run out of water again. State and local officials still have to find a permanent solution to a long-term problem.

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