New Mexico drought spurs wildfires, hurts farmers

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Albuquerque and Roswell are on pace for their driest years on record, mirroring conditions across New Mexico that have bolstered large wildfires, hurt crops and forced ranchers to sell livestock they can't afford to feed.

Rain has been scarce throughout most of New Mexico, and weather records from Albuquerque and Roswell offer this stark example: The cities have not been this dry during the first five months of a year since 1892, when the state began keeping track.

The rest of the state is not much different. It's the third driest year in state history so far.

"We're experiencing a drought of truly epic proportions," said Matt Rush, executive vice president of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, an organization of farmers and ranchers.

Albuquerque has gotten about 0.19 inches of rain so far this year, a fraction of the normal average of 2.62 inches, the National Weather Service said. About 0.09 inches of rain has fallen in Roswell this year, compared with the average of 2.92 inches. The only part of the state not battling extremely dry conditions is the northwest in the Gallup area.

"They're OK, but nearly everyone else in the state is getting bad or already there," said Chuck Jones, senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies nearly 65 percent of New Mexico as having drought conditions that are either "extreme" or "exceptional." At this point last year, no area in the state was in those categories.

What's happening now are drought conditions that happen once every 50 years, the University of Arizona said in a study last month examining New Mexico.

The dry weather lays the foundation for a volatile wildfire season. As of mid-May, the study said wildfires in New Mexico have scorched more than 655 square miles, or more than 420,000 acres. By comparison, wildfires have burned and average of 375 square miles annually during the past 20 years, according to the study. This year, one wildfire alone has burned 137 square miles north of Silver City. Firefighters are approaching full containment of the blaze.

The fire danger has prompted forest and campfire closures, and some state parks have banned fireworks as the Fourth of July approaches.

Texas and parts of Oklahoma are also experiencing severe drought, and meteorologists are attributing the phenomenon to La Nina, a cooling of the tropical Pacific Ocean.

The University of Arizona study found that poor pastures are making some ranchers in southern New Mexico's Otero County pay $1,000 a month for livestock feed.

Rush, a farmer and rancher in the eastern city of Portales, said there's been no rain in more than four months. He said he and his colleagues are running out of options and have to sell their herds because there's no grass to feed them. The existing feed supply has gotten expensive because of high demand.

"I have to tell you, as a farmer and rancher, it keeps you up at night," Rush said. "Worrying about what to do and when the next rain will come."

Mike White, a farmer in the Roswell area and president of the state Farm and Livestock Bureau, said the drought is affecting his hay operation. While he usually gets about 2½ tons of hay per acre at the end of April, this year he only produced 1½ half tons.

"It's not a good situation at all, really. The last rain we had was in October," he said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a request from New Mexico U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall to grant emergency grazing rights on federal lands to ranchers in Curry County, which borders Texas. The senators are pushing for approval in more counties.

The Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency is also assisting ranchers, giving them about $5 million since March to buy feed, said Andrew Ortiz, a program specialist with the FSA.

The FSA expects to pay New Mexico ranchers up to $20 million for feed this year, he said. But there's only so much the government can do.

"They'd rather have the rain than the payments," Ortiz said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

 


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