Texas

Wet winter bounty helps to erases drought in New Mexico

The snow is melting, New Mexico's rivers are flowing and the clouds are building more regularly, bringing with them much needed doses of rain as the arid state tries to shake what's left of the drought.

"It's a total flip of the coin from last year," state climatologist Dave DuBois told a group of lawmakers during a meeting Tuesday in Santa Fe.

A combination of cooler-than-average temperatures and more precipitation over the last several months has helped ease last year's dry conditions, he said.

DuBois shared the latest snow reports and precipitation data with lawmakers, while New Mexico's top water manager, State Engineer John D'Antonio, testified on the status of reservoir levels around the state. Now, nearly all river basins are reporting precipitation levels well over 100% of average and the reservoirs are recovering.

The extra moisture means New Mexico is able to store water from the Rio Grande in upstream reservoirs without compromising its water-sharing agreement with Texas. The two states are locked in a legal battle before the U.S. Supreme Court over management of the river, and provisions of the decades-old compact prevent storage if a key reservoir drops below 400,000 acre-feet.

D'Antonio said Elephant Butte Reservoir surpassed that level in mid-May, clearing the way for New Mexico to hold back some water.

"We're in a recovery phase," he said, noting that almost every reservoir in the state is still below average because of the effects of long-term drought.

Nearly every square mile of New Mexico was dealing with drought at this time last year. The two most severe categories of drought covered over 60 percent of the state.

It's the opposite this June, as abnormally dry and moderate drought cover less than one-third of New Mexico . DuBois said the situation is likely to improve even more as the models favor above-average precipitation and cooler temperatures over the next month.

Despite the good news, officials still have concerns about the legal battle with Texas over the Rio Grande.

Texas wants New Mexico to stop pumping groundwater along the border so that more of the Rio Grande flows south to farmers and residents in El Paso. Critics contend the well-pumping depletes the aquifer that would otherwise drain back into the river.

New Mexico argues Texas is violating the interstate compact governing the river by allowing unrestricted pumping and other diversions on its side of the border and therefore aggravating demands on the river.

D'Antonio told lawmakers the case isn't expected to go to trial until 2021 but that the discovery phase is in full swing as New Mexico prepares its models and expert reports.

The states and the U.S. government also are awaiting the findings of a special master, who will decide the scope of the case based on oral arguments made earlier this year.

The parties also recently met in Denver to talk about modeling and the potential of reaching a settlement.

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