Orange fish in the ocean - photo by Hiroko Yoshii - photo by Hiroko Yoshii

Drought in the Southwest

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Periods of drought in the southwest are nothing new. Cycles of wet and dry have occurred for as long as the planet has been revolving around the sun, since dinosaurs roamed the shores of an inland sea that now makes up the Raton-Clayton volcanic field in northeastern New Mexico. More recently this paucity of moisture has persisted through periods of exploration and exploitation by Native Americans, Spanish conquistadores, fur trappers, coal miners, ranchers and farmers.

For the last hundred years, as mines closed down operations, ranching and farming became the way of life. These small family operations were scattered across the plains, and supported and fed those seeking the American West way of life. They survived the dustbowl of the 1930s, the drought of the 1950s, and any subsequent dry interludes. I have spoken with those who lived through these parched periods, and they all say that the recent lack of water, which has spanned the last several years, is the worst they have ever encountered. There is some dispute as to how long it has been going on, but most mark the year 2000 as the start, with the worst portion being the last three to five years.

Since 2013, I have been documenting the alterations in the land and lifestyle of northeastern New Mexico, concentrating on Colfax and Union counties. Relying on photographs, video footage and interviews, I have recorded these changes. Leading a small team, I have made trips to the areas most affected, and have interviewed ranchers who had to reduce their herds, sell off land or take jobs elsewhere to keep things going. Farming in the area is very limited because of a lack of winter moisture, which leaves little water for irrigation. Most depend on snowpack along with spring and summer rains to grow hay for their herds.

The Maxwell Wildlife Refuge is in Colfax County, and for many years those who tended the lands in this area were contracted to farm their fields in order to feed the migrating birds. These fields now lie fallow, and many birds have had to change their migration routes to rest and recuperate in other areas for the winter.

The images you see are from the area in and around the Wildlife Refuge.

All images are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Photos are used with the permission of Kathleen Brennan.

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