Elephant Butte, First Major Dam In The West, Celebrates Its 100th Birthday

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
October 19, 2016
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Relatives of workers who helped build Elephant Butte Dam from 1911 to 1916 gather for a group photo beneath the 306 foot tall concrete structure.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico is less than 7 percent full on the eve of its 100th anniversary.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
The hydroelectric plant built at the foot of Elephant Butte Dam in 1939. The plant is capable of generating up to 27 megawatts of power.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Elephant Butte Dam is lit up in red, white and blue at night during a month-long celebration of its 100th anniversary.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Original cast iron pipes from the early 1900s are still in use inside Elephant Butte Dam. This pipe helps open up one of several gates that release water from the reservoir behind the dam.

Elephant Butte Dam rose from the desert of southern New Mexico a century ago — the solution to an international water feud between the United States and Mexico.

Centennial celebrations have taken place throughout the month of October in and around the town of Truth or Consequences, which sprang up during the dam's construction. Before there wasn't much in its place but marshland with pockets of hot springs rumored to be a favorite hangout of Geronimo.

Since the late 1800s, as settlements along the upper and middle Rio Grande grew, Mexico complained that the U.S. was taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water and eventually sued for $20 million. The two countries signed a treaty in 1906 that called for the United States to build a dam that would store water to deliver to Mexico.

Ten years later Elephant Butte Dam was completed 124 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. As an added bonus it also created the largest and most productive agricultural zone in the state of New Mexico while helping to control flooding. It was one of the first major projects of what would become the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. At the time, Elephant Butte was the second largest dam in the world after the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

The dam was also the first in a series of massive Reclamation projects that would include Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, all of which transformed the western United States. Without them cities like Phoenix and Los Angles might have never grown to their present-day size. Only today demand for water has surpassed the capacity behind these dams and cities and farms across the West must figure out how to do more with less.

On the Saturday before Elephant Butte's 100th anniversary, a group whose relatives helped build the dam gathered for a group photo just below the 306-foot-tall concrete structure. It was named after the elephant-shaped mound that stands behind the dam. 

"On the count of three everybody say 'Happy Birthday Elephant Butte Dam'," a photographer called out.

"My grandfather, Petronilio Padilla, worked here building this dam from 1911 to 1916," said 75-year-old Jenny Chavez. "He and his brothers had teams of horses and they did the freighting."

An engineering marvel of its time, construction at Elephant Butte Dam began crudely with materials hauled in by horse drawn wagons and mules. Worker housing was segregated with separate camps for Anglo and Mexican laborers. At first, Chavez said her mom feared the dam would burst.

"The size of it and you know all the water that it holds, she made my dad buy her a home up on the hill … because she didn't know if this was going to stay," Chavez said.

Turns out it's held out remarkably well. During the Cold War the dam was even designated as fallout shelter in case of a nuclear explosion. Provisions like food and water were stored in small tunnels in the dam's interior.  

What's become less reliable though, is the water supply behind the dam. Currently Elephant Butte Reservoir is less than 7 percent full.

"Obviously it would be nicer to celebrate the 100th anniversary with the water spilling over the spillway," said Robert Fabian, a fourth generation farmer in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico.

Fabian rotates his crops year to year growing onions, cotton, chile and alfalfa.

"Most of my family came from Texas to partake in that Garden of Eden that was being created out here in the desert," he said.

In the last century, that Garden of Eden has gone through both wet and dry cycles. The latest dry spell has hung on for 14 years, only now climate change is amplifying the effects of drought.

"I am quite concerned that this is not just one of the same old mood swings but a permanent shift toward a more arid climate," said Phil King, a civil engineer and consultant for Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

The district is a network of about 7,000 farmers who depend on the Rio Grande. Many of them have gotten through these dry years by pumping groundwater. 

This is the dilemma confronting water managers across the West. Today demand has grown beyond agriculture. There's cities and industry, the environment and recreation. Elephant Butte Reservoir, is among New Mexico's most visited state parks. 

"The 'Weekend Warriors' are our bread-and-butter here, the whole area thrives on tourism," said Shane Fiolkoski, who helps manage a series of marinas that float above the reservoir. "We have from Memorial Day to Labor Day to make money here in this town."

Businesses that depend on recreation are fearful that less water will hurt the local economy.

"The lake level now has already gotten to people's perception because you hear rumors that, 'Oh it's a mud hole'," Fiolkoski said.

The lake is not a mud hole, there's just less surface space and water sports tend to be more crowded.

Last week elected officials and businesses in Sierra County met with the irrigation district to discuss maintaining a consistent water level at the reservoir. Without a surplus, that will likely be difficult given that every drop has an owner downstream.

King, the district's consultant, said everyone must learn to live with shortages.

"It's just like being a farmer, when you go into drought it hurts and that's unfortunate but it's nature," he said.

Still, John Fleck, a journalist who's written about water for almost 30 years, has witnessed signs of hope during research he did for his recently published book "Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths about Water in the West"

"There's a lot of really optimistic stories of people really adapting to the scarcity of water," he said.

For example farmers in Yuma, Arizona have reduced their summer water use by shifting to winter crops. The city of Albuquerque has cut its water use by nearly half through a series of conservation measures.

But even a century after Elephant Butte, the Rio Grande remains an embattled river. In 2013 Texas filed a complaint against New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme court claiming that its neighbor has taken too much of the river's water. The dispute is currently under review by the high court.