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New Mexican ranchers remain steadfast during drought

September 26, 2018

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Industries came and went.

People moved in, moved out.

But southern Eddy County, New Mexico always remained, despite the struggles brought on by the region’s fluctuations in weather and development.

For hundreds of years that land was used for farming and ranching.

Communities appeared, but stayed small and remote amid the vast fields of alfalfa and cotton.

It’s a legacy that generations of Craig Ogden’s ancestors helped build before he took his birthright.

One his cautious optimism aims to protect.

Ogden looked out onto his 500 acres of hay fields and rangeland the morning after a heavy rain, on a warm June morning and saw his land strangled by drought.

There was less than an inch of rain during the last nine months, and recent temperatures had climbed well above 100-degrees, months ahead of the norm.

The usually light-brown grass had flushed green slightly since the late-night rain, but in hours the dirt was back to a powder and Ogden imagined the plant life — and his livelihood — gasping out of thirst.

In his business, it’s all about water.

And in the dry, desert-like climate of southern Eddy County, the life-sustaining resource is getting scarcer.

But the Ogden Ranch has survived, through brutal heat and dryness, for decades.

He might see some tough decisions looming in the clear New Mexico skies, but Ogden thinks he’ll make it.

“You’ve gotta be optimistic. My dad made it through,” he said. “When you think of the guys that grew up in the 30s, you suck it up. When times get tough, you suck it up. You don’t buy that new tractor or car. You do what you can to survive.”

He isn’t the only one struggling in the area south of Carlsbad, known for centuries as a humble farming and ranching community, but recently a hotspot for oil and gas developments as exploration grows in the Permian Basin beneath southeastern New Mexico.

He pointed to climate change as the cause of the harsh weather, but was unsure if the gradual warming of the Earth was as man-made as the flare stacks scattered across the night sky.

“Everybody is scrambling for water,” he said. “It’s a worldwide problem. I’m sure there is some climate change, but I disagree that it’s all manmade. Still, when you see all these flares at night, you know there’s some impact.”

The year started out positive enough.

The Carlsbad Irrigation District, which provides irrigation water to farmers and ranchers in southern Carlsbad and Eddy County, announced a full allotment at the start of 2018, giving local landowners some confidence that their needs would be met.

But as a man whose livelihood depends not just on this year’s, but every year’s supply, Ogden said the lack of rain, the heat and the dryness are troubling when looking out to the next allotment.

Ranchers are already beginning to adjust to the drought, he said, relocating herds and planting less feed.

It hasn’t been this bad, Ogden said, since 2012 when he lost 10 percent of his rangeland to the drought.

“I was an emotional wreck in 2012,” Ogden said. “I didn’t know how we were going to survive. I’m already worried for this year. I don’t know if we’ll ever get out of it.

“We’re lucky we got a full allotment this year. We haven’t got that in years.”

Former Carlsbad City Administrator Steve McCutcheon has ranched in southern Eddy County for about 25 years.

He’s also familiar with the hard decisions farmers and ranchers must make when the desert gets dry.

It’s just part of reality for any long-term rancher, McCutcheon said.

He said all of his cattle are held in a feed house because grazelands are becoming scarcer.

With less than an inch or rain in the last nine months, McCutcheon worried his livestock could starve.

“It wasn’t enough to do any good,” he said of the little rain the area did get. “It’s just really dry. It happens in New Mexico. This seems like it’s been a particularly hard one.

“The heat and hot wind just drive the life out of every little plant that is trying to grow.”

That means less food for the cattle, weakening the health of the animals ranchers rely on survive.

McCutcheon said there are two options: continue to feed the cows and hope for rain, or sell them off.

But in a drought, he said everyone is selling so prices drop.

Last year, McCutcheon said he could sell stock for about $1,300.

This year, they’re only worth $800.

“You sell out during a drought, you won’t make as much money,” he said. “But you either feed them or sell them. Everyone figures out how to survive in their own way.

Judy Bock is fighting for New Mexico’s wildlife by trying to save its water.

She’s the district manager of the Carlsbad Soil and Water Conservation District, and works closely with landowners such as Ogden and McCutcheon to identify water- and land-related issues, and find solutions.

Bock grew up on a desert ranch, and takes a hard stance on water conservation, developed during a childhood that did not allow the life-sustaining resource to be taken for granted.

She worried the fresh water is being unduly used for operations such as hydraulic fracturing, taking away irrigation and drinking water when more brackish options could be available.

Southern Eddy County was one of the areas hit hardest by the state-wide drought, Bock said.

“I do applaud the companies that are using resources to clean water up,” Bock said. “It’s hard seeing all that freshwater go to the industry.”

Ranchers expressed anxiety starting in October, after an abnormally dry summer.

The lack of monsoon activity during the rainy season was followed by a dry winter and spring, she said, and many grew concerned.

“It’s very stressful for them,” Bock said of the drought’s impact on ranchers. “They’re losing surface where they could have grass and production. It’s very frustrating, especially down south.

“The land is delicate enough already. During a dry spell like this, everything is powder.”

To attempt to mitigate what could become a natural disaster, Bock and the District implemented brush control projects on rangelands in the area.

She said the District offers a grant program for landowners, matching up to $5,000 in funding for the work.

Brush control is enacted by removing invasive plant species such as creosote and salt cedar, and re-seeding native grasses.

The invasive species consume more water than their native counterparts, causing soil erosion and stymieing growth.

Re-seeding can increase water retention, cut back on erosion and improve water quality, Bock said.

She said the District is also in talks with the City of Carlsbad to implement a rain barrel program that would see residents capture rain water at their homes for a variety of uses.

The District also plans to educate residents about sustainable gardening practices.

“We’re all dealing with it,” Bock said. “I know there is tension. The weather is changing. It’s just the cycle of how it goes.”

Solutions she said, start with restoring southeast New Mexico to the teeming vegetation as it once did.

“We’ve got to get the grasses to come out,” she said. “That will really help.”

If a solution is not found, she said, the industry that built the region — and defines its past — could dry up like the land.

“If it stays like this, they’ll end of having to sell a lot of their cattle,” she said. “That’s why it’s hard for ranchers. It hasn’t hit the farmers as bad yet. They have enough water. But if it stays dry next year, they might not have enough.”

But saving the region from drought isn’t only for profit, McCutcheon said.

Those who build their lives on the land, he said, are the best stewards of its future.

“This isn’t just for the farmers and ranchers, it also helps the wildlife,” he said. “It’s part of landscape that’s out there. People keep that water up for the wildlife. If (animals) can get a drink from a spot that maintains, it really helps them.”

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Information from: Carlsbad Current-Argus, http://www.currentargus.com/

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