New Mexico's largest reservoir at 25-year low


Mar 11, 2001
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Thursday, May 23, 2002  

Low water level isn't expected to hurt tourism at Elephant Butte

Dan J. Williams, El Paso Times

ELEPHANT BUTTE -- Carl Brown would like to get something straight: Despite the drought, the water glass that is Elephant Butte Lake is half-full.

"It is not nearly empty, and it is not a mudhole," Brown said of recent media reports indicating that New Mexico's most popular recreational lake is in trouble. "The drought has not affected us here."

Brown's optimism is shared by visitors and those who live and work at the lake. As owner of the lake's biggest marina, Brown expects to see many of the 80,000 to 100,000 people who normally visit the lake over Memorial Day weekend.

"It's the traditional beginning of summer," he said. "Whether the lake is high or low, they always come."

Although the water level at the 87-year-old reservoir is slightly above half its capacity -- its lowest since the mid-1970s -- the beaches are big, and the lake is still more than a mile across in some spots. The fishing's great, anglers say, and the boating is as good as it's always been.

"There's still plenty of lake to play on," said Brad Ahrensfield, who brought his family to the Butte last week for a day of jet-skiing. "It's not at all like some people spelled it out to be."

This weekend's crowds could set an attendance record at the lake, Elephant Butte State Park Superintendent Ray Kirkpatrick said.

"With everything else going on -- the fire dangers and forest closures -- we're expecting a huge crowd," he said.

And for the first time in many years, "there's no worry about lack of room on the beaches. People will see some very exciting camping opportunities."

Another enticement to visitors: Elephant Butte is the only state park in New Mexico with no fire restrictions.

To help accommodate the crowds, state park crews have built several roads to beaches and primitive camping spots that had been underwater for more than 15 years. And as the water recedes about an inch a day, portable toilets and trash bins are moved with it.

"The new roads will take people down to almost the water's edge," Kirkpatrick said.

That's where El Pasoan Alex Roa was parked last week. The Fort Bliss soldier found a sandy beach in Hot Springs Cove that was an ideal spot to launch his jet ski.

"As soon as the water gets warm and the weather gets hot, I start coming out here," Roa said between jet-ski runs. "Out here, I can get away from the city, away from Fort Bliss, away from the world."

Roa is one of about 2.8 million people who visit the park every year. About half of those come from El Paso, according to a recent survey by New Mexico State University, said Lance Cherry, a spokesman for New Mexico State Parks. Most of the others come from Albuquerque or Las Cruces and other Southern New Mexico communities.

Fishing guide Frank Vilorio said his customers come from across the Southwest and the nation to catch one of the lake's famed striped bass, some of which grow to 50 pounds or more. He said weekend visitors will have their best luck fishing for white bass, the stripers' smaller cousin.

His advice: Find a quiet cove and cast into shallow water with a white Roadrunner jig, a live minnow or a Rooster Tail spinner.

But finding a quiet cove will be difficult this weekend.

State park boating officer Russell Woolf said he expects to see thousands of boats and jet skis on the water at a time, making safety a priority.

"There are no street lanes, street lights and no stop signs on the lake," he said. "But there are rules."

He suggested that people who visit the lake familiarize themselves with boating rules and safety practices before hitting the water. He and other officers will be on patrol to help boaters and make sure they have all the required safety gear.

People who are acting irresponsibly or endangering others will be ordered off the water or arrested.

"But law enforcement is not our primary focus out here," he said. "Boating safety is."

The falling lake has also presented some safety challenges for Woolf and other boating officers. As the deep channels get narrower, buoys must be moved and obstacles marked. Long Point peninsula, for example, is above water almost to its sister island, which previously was in the center of the lake.

"We're basically telling people (boaters) not to go through there anymore," he said. "They have to go around to the main channel."

Woolf, who grew up in Truth or Consequences, said he remembers the lake when it was at its second-lowest level in history, in the early 1970s. This year's water level is expected to reach that point by the end of irrigation season in October.

"In my opinion, this year is very similar to years past. We just have more beach," Woolf said. "There's still plenty of water here. Heck, this lake is more than a mile wide."

Javier Grajeda, a hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls the Butte's water releases, said the lake is expected to fall to 255,000 acre-feet -- about 25 percent of capacity -- by October. An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to supply 5,000 El Pasoans for one day.

The reason the Butte is falling so fast, Grajeda said, is that a puny spring runoff was unable to match the irrigation demands downstream. This week, the bureau was releasing 1,900 to 2,000 cubic feet per second daily to water crops in Doña Ana and El Paso counties.

The amount of water coming into the lake, he said, was only 200 to 300 cubic feet per second.

Dan J. Williams may be reached at


Well-known member
May 3, 2001
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i saw that lake on my buffalo hunt in new mexico in march.. it definetly is huge but there is nothing but desert around it. there is some good hunting 30 miles from t or c (truth or consequenses) in the gila national forest.  would like to get back and fish it some day.
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