WAGON MOUND, N.M. — For years now the southwestern United States has been crippled by drought. At the beginning of summer in New Mexico that meant dry, brittle landscapes. Several communities ran out of water, and now hundreds of vulnerable towns are trying to keep that from ever happening again.
The village of Wagon Mound is smack dab in the middle of New Mexico's sprawling Eastern Plains. With a population somewhere around 300, the community has been drawing its water from a natural spring that gushes up from the ground about a mile from town.
"This is the actual spring that the main line is tapped into. And it goes all the way down the canyon, past a water station, and then directly to a tank and it's gravity fed," said Patrick Lopez, the village's water superintendent.
Lopez said earlier this year, when he opened the main line to fill the tank in town, he noticed a big drop in the amount of water bubbling out of the spring. That was unusual. But the giant red flag came the day after. When the town’s tank was filled, the spring stopped flowing completely.
"There was a day the spring didn't come back," Lopez said.
The following day, the water started flowing again. But because this is the only water source for the village, and the reality that it could vanish completely was terrifying. Lopez said the water level has dropped more than a foot and a half in just a month.
"I really don't look forward to the day when you come up here and don't see but maybe a foot of water," Lopez said. "That would be sad, but it could happen."
In fact, this summer, the wells in three New Mexico towns dried up and water had to be trucked in.
"When we started seeing these communities run out of water it was like 'why is this occurring?'" said Ryan Flynn, secretary of the State Environment Department.
It turns out there are more than 250 mostly rural communities scattered throughout the state that rely on a single source.
"If you are relying on only one single supply of water, if there was an event you really are in a tough spot because you don't have any other options," Flynn said.
Those tough spots can be caused by drought, contamination or just aging, leaky infrastructure. For the most part, Flynn said, people don't even think where where the water comes from.
"You think as long as the water's flowing, everything’s good," he said.
Wagon Mound has teamed up with the state’s Drinking Water Bureau to develop a plan. People are cutting back their water use. Residents can even go on supervised tours of the spring to see for themselves where the water that flushes their toilets actually comes from.
Dennis McQuillian works for the state helping towns protect their water source. He says across the Southwest more water is being pumped out of the aquifers then nature is putting back in.
Up at Wagon Mound’s spring he's been taking electrical conductivity readings to gauge the health of the aquifer that feeds it. McQuillian inserts a gadget that looks like a thermometer into the water.
"I'm measuring the electrical conductivity, which is a measure of the electrolytes in the water and the total dissolved solids and the mineral content. Quite often what we'll see as aquifers are being depleted is conductivity will go up. The reading I just measured was 447 microsiemens per centimeter."
Despite the spring’s lower levels, McQuillian said that conductivity reading has more or less flatlined, which is a good thing.
Driving back to the village, McQuillian spots a windmill off in the distance and asks Lopez about it.
"So is that another spring there at eleven o'clock?" McQuillian asks.
"There's a windmill there, there might be a spring there as well," Lopez said.
"Well that would be a good one to sample and measure," McQuillian said.
McQuillian says a proper hydrogeological investigation is going to involve sampling every possible water source in the region, even that distant windmill. Part of Wagon Mound's goal is to come up with a secondary source of water so that if their spring goes dry, there is a Plan B.