LAS VEGAS, N.M. (AP) – The drought in this community is now so severe that water isn’t provided with restaurant meals unless a diner requests it, and then it’s served in a paper cup. Car washes operate only two days each week.

The hotel pools are empty, and long-term guests must ask if they want linens changed more than once every four days.

“I sleep, eat and drink with worries about how we’re going to get through this,” said Richard Trujillo, the city’s utilities administrator. “When it hasn’t snowed or rained, people will want to know, ‘What are you doing to solve this?'”

As in much of the Southwest, the high desert lands of New Mexico are locked in another drought cycle this summer, with wildfires raging in tinder-dry forests. According to the National Weather Service, statewide precipitation for May was 36 percent of the normal amount – the seventh straight excessively dry month.

Santa Fe has received only 1.2 inches of precipitation during the seven-month period since November, the lowest in 133 years of record keeping. The 0.41 inches in Albuquerque is the lowest in 114 years of data.

And in Las Vegas, a community along the eastern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the 60-month data show precipitation 18.71 inches below normal, according to Charlie Liles, meteorologist in charge of the Weather Service in Albuquerque.

“That’s essentially a year’s precipitation over a five-year period,” Liles said.

As a result, Las Vegas has imposed some of New Mexico’s most restrictive water rules. Outdoor watering has been banned since last fall, leaving lawns withering in once-lush neighborhoods.

Deborah Martinez, who has lived for 42 years in the stately Victorian home where she grew up, gave up her vegetable garden this year. Where her grass hasn’t yellowed, it has blown away, and the morning glories that once grew on her fence are history.

She and her husband, William, can only watch as the roses and vines adorning their porch wither. They’ve even begun to share their bath water.

“We’d rather have survival water,” Mrs. Martinez said as the two sat on a porch swing. “It’s OK if everything dies, as long as we don’t.”

Las Vegas relies almost entirely on surface water. Melting snowpack and rainfall collects to form the Gallinas River, and 98 percent of the water for the town’s 18,000 residents is stored in two reservoirs in the mountains above town. The river then trickles through the meadows of Las Vegas, barely ankle-deep and a few yards wide this summer.

“Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, you’d usually see spring runoff last into June,” Trujillo recalled. “By the middle of July, we’d get into the monsoon season. There was always enough water. It was like clockwork.”

But the clock seems broken. It wasn’t a snowy winter this year. And as months pass without rain, city reserves have dropped to 50 percent of capacity – enough to last only into September unless monsoonal rains sweep across New Mexico as they usually do in July and August.

Liles said forecasting models suggest precipitation should be close to average in July and August, meaning the late-summer downpours may be coming.

But he offered a word of caution: The most recent years for poor snowpack in New Mexico were 2000 and 2002 – close together over the 56-year study span. Liles wonders whether those years might indicate a trend toward deepening drought.

Despite the water restrictions, Trujillo said there have been few complaints. Residents are consuming about 1.3 million gallons daily, compared with 2.8 million gallons during normal usage last year.

“Our citizens have been great,” Trujillo said. “We’ve been working since 2000 to implement year-round awareness programs to help conserve water during the droughts, and the response has been outstanding.”

AP-ES-07-01-06 1449EDT


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