When the Well Runs Dry

New Mexico Water Data :: Magdalena

Water storage tanks stand on a hill overlooking Magdalena. The tanks and associated water lines and wells are part of a massive water infrastructure improvement project begun eight years ago when, without warning, the town’s only functional well went dry. Photo by Don J Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Nobody knows how much water New Mexico has. Finding out is the best way to ensure survival against drought and climate change.

This story is part one of a two-part series on NM’s water struggles.

Magdalena, N.M. — Mayor Richard Rumpf drives slowly through town — population 870 — and gestures toward the new ambulance, the volunteer fire department that he captains, the library housed in a converted train station. His role in the community spans everything from substitute teaching at the local school — “State champs again,” he says proudly of the boys basketball team — to playing Santa Claus in the Christmas parade.

“This is my community,” Rumpf says. “I put a lot of effort into it.”

A large part of that effort goes to one of Magdalena’s primary concerns: water management. As climate change makes the state ever hotter and drier — threatening small towns, rivers and cherished landscapes — few places are taking this problem as seriously as Magdalena.

Tucked away in a corner of Village Hall behind a box of Christmas decorations is a computer screen that displays water levels in the town’s well in real time. It may not look like much, but this state-of-the-art well-monitoring system is one of the only indications of what happened in Magdalena eight years ago when, without warning, the town’s only functional well went dry.

The utilities manager at the time measured the water level once per year. But when residents noticed air bubbles in their water lines, he went to check the well — fed by a single underground aquifer — and found that the water had dropped 15 feet since his previous measurement. It was sitting below the reach of the pump. Some residents went without running water for almost a week while others suffered milder inconveniences. A group of local business owners filed a lawsuit citing negligence in maintaining the town’s water infrastructure.