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Magdalena Water Use Reduced By More Than 50 Percent After Water Crisis

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Simon Thompson
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In June of 2013, a small New Mexico village ran out of water.  Magdalena is home to about a thousand people in the central part of the state. Hydrologists regard the village as a canary in the coal mine; a taste of what the future could hold for New Mexico if rising temperatures and scarce water supplies aren’t managed for the future. Almost two years Magdalena’s recovery is shaping the state’s ground water policy. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkOHfxfQX4M&feature=youtu.be

Back in 2013 New Mexico was in the grips of an historic drought that continues today.  In Magdalena water utilities manager Steve Bailey heard from customers saying they were getting air bubbles in their water line so Bailey went to check the village water well.

“We don’t have any water in this well- no warning no anything nothing to tell me, that this was coming”
he said. 

The water level was sitting inches below the water pump’s reach and according to Bailey 15 feet lower than the last time he’d checked –he showed the mayor, called an emergency meeting and told the townspeople they had a day two days at most before the village would run out of water completely.

“It was quite the mob scene you know to stand in front of what people did show up who were very upset what is going on what happened to the water  what did you guys do wrong and the time we really didn’t have any other answers other than it was gone  and we didn’t know what to do” he said. 

Emergency water tanks, bottled water and porta potties were trucked in from surrounding towns. Stacey Timmons with the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources came to assess the well and the situation.

“People were in a daze it was unbelievable. It was complete shock. That this is what was going on in this town, they were walking around like zombies, you turn on the faucet and it is hard to believe how much that actually affects a person you cant wash your hands, you cant cook, you cant do the simple things" she said. 

Despite the water restrictions some businesses continued to operate.  To keep her doors open at the M&M hotel Linda Mansell brought in two porta potties and secured enough water from friends and outside sources.

“I was just kind of using the tactics I would of used If I  out in the woods or like if I was  serving people out in the fields. You just take your water and boiling water and stuff like that and  you have your certain tubs  and chlorine and paper plates" she said. 

Mansell says she lost some of her permanent hotel tenants –but otherwise business was actually good while the water was off customers didn’t mind eating off paper plates and with plastic utensils.

Other Magdalena businesses weren’t so fortunate. The water well’s failure dealt a death blow to Magdalena’s only coin laundry it’s now an agricultural supply business. Other firms saw major losses when the village canceled its July heritage event the old timers reunion to protect the water supply. Mansell says it brings as many as one thousand people into town every year.

“It just generated a lot more money. I would say it would give us maybe 50% of a kick start for another you know through the winter.” she said

A group of local businesses including the owners of the laundromat have filed a lawsuit against the village for their losses citing negligence in maintaining the main well and alternative wells. Bailey says he checked the main well every year as he was supposed to- he says it was beyond his control.

“As far as I am concerned was an act of god. whatever you want to call it" she said. 

But New Mexico Tech hydrologist  Fred Phillips says when you look at the temperatures, rain fall and the capacity of Magdalena’s well it isn’t all that surprising the village went dry.

“Is it just like lightening striking out of the blue? Or is it something that maybe we could understand  and predict and give  people some warning of? Well the answer is that yes! It probably can be predicted”

But Phillips says predications are not always available to small villages like Magdalena with limited resources and expertise.  And that’s what Phillips is working to change.  Using Magdalena as a model he is developing a user friendly ground water monitoring service, that would allow water utilities throughout the state to receive electronic alerts if groundwater drops to the dangerously low levels seen in Magdalena.

“The national weather service provides us with warnings of things like flash floods, about tornados, about heat waves  and so on. People make use of those  warning to do all kinds of things, they are just a routine facet of our lives we don’t have any warnings now  about things like water levels declining  and wells going dry but there is no reason that we shouldn’t” he said.

Stacey Timmons says the project could be expanded statewide in the next three years. but she says enhancing resources is only half the battle. Timmons says the Magdalena crisis highlighted concerns about water regulation in New Mexico.

"The environment department kind of oversees  public supply systems and they only require that communities measure their well water level once per year. It had been  done, the individual in Magdalena had been doing exactly  what he was told’ she said 

Magdalena residents and business owners like Mansell have cut their water use dramatically since the town went dry. Per person daily use dropped from as much as 175 gallons before the water crisis to around 75 gallons today.  By comparison, Las Cruces residents average about 166 gallons a day.

“I have cut down a lot on the water knowing that we don’t need to use so much and I do that at home also. Plus I have big tubs when that water comes down from the rain – it comes in some big tubs at the houses  and stuff-  so I try to use that for my plants. I lost a lot of plants here, because we use to water here but I changed a lot to a lot more desert plants.” she said    

Timmons says she hopes the rest of New Mexico can cut water consumption like Magdalena has been able to but is concerned it may take their taps running dry before they do. 

Magdalena’s water supply has since stabilized but Phillips says had it not been for some of the heaviest rain on record in the September after the crisis the town might still be recovering.

"It was almost a miraculous saving of the system" he said

Water Utilities manger Steve Bailey says the utility spent upwards of $200,000 to get two out of use wells back on line he now checks the town’s wells every month.  

Simon Thompson was a reporter/producer for KRWG-TV's Newsmakers from 2014 to 2017. Encores of his work appear from time to time on KRWG-TV's Newsmakers and KRWG-FM's Fronteras-A Changing America.