Lower Rio Grande, New Mexico

Water Scarcity: Elephant Butte Water Reservoir | Sierra County

Kathleen Kambic


As a result of regional and global warming trends, New Mexico’s climate is getting hotter and drier. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change will result in “earlier springs, hotter summers, and less predictable winters” in the region.

Elephant Butte Reservoir is an artificial water reservoir located along the Rio Grande. In 2013, the reservoir held only 3 percent of its maximum capacity, the lowest level ever recorded. This drought not only had permanent effects on farming and agriculture, but also exhausted the water supply of entire villages. Magdalena, a village 100 miles north from the reservoir, saw its wells run dry, forcing its residents to rely on bottled water for several weeks.

Experts predict that New Mexico’s drought risk will become ever more acute in the coming decades. With less precipitation and more consecutive dry days, the changing climate will have devastating effects on the multibillion-dollar agricultural sector and the region’s forest ecosystems. Today, various alternatives to make communities more resilient to climate impacts are being discussed.

This feature focuses on water scarcity in the region by examining Elephant Butte Reservoir, its ongoing shrinkage, and the efforts taken at federal, state, and local levels to prepare for the impacts of a hotter and drier climate. —Ane González Lara, Diverse Peoples, Arid Landscapes, and the Built Environment report editor

On October 15, 2020, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District noted at its board of directors meeting that there may be no water allotments to the farmers between Elephant Butte Reservoir and Las Cruces next year. It was a poor year for inflow into Elephant Butte Reservoir, and, with a La Niña cycle coming, 2021 may be even worse.  

An announcement like this sets off a chain of responses that will affect people in Doña Ana and Sierra counties and beyond. Economically, farmers will have to pay more for water pumped from the ground. Environmentally, well drawdown will further separate the groundwater system from surface flows and will decimate the little remaining riparian habitat along the riverbanks of the Rio Grande. Culturally, people will lose work and income, further depressing this area and causing population loss and other issues. 

Elephant Butte Reservoir. Credit: John Acosta

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is a microcosm of the nexus between climate change, political economy, and cultural influences. This feature breaks down the issues and contexts surrounding the Elephant Butte Reservoir and the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Click on the individual articles below for discussions of different parts of the infrastructural puzzle.

Taken in pieces or as whole, this feature reflects how conditions along the Rio Grande are in flux. There is no one simple answer to the many issues the river faces. – Kathleen Kambic


Thanks to Ane González Lara for her support and coordination of this effort.

“Water Scarcity: Elephant Butte Reservoir” was written solely by Kathleen Kambic, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. All images are her work alone, unless noted otherwise in the text.

The original peoples of New Mexico since time immemorial—Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache— have deep connections to the land and have made significant contributions to the broader community statewide. I honor the land itself and those who remain stewards of this land throughout the generations, and also acknowledge our committed relationship to Indigenous peoples. I gratefully recognize our history and the present-day work to preserve and wisely use the Rio.


Kathleen Kambic

is an assistant professor in the department of landscape architecture at the University of New Mexico and an affiliate with the school’s water resources program and the department of geography and environmental studies. Her research interests include water infrastructure, marginalized urban space, political ecology, and landscape theory. Her current research explores feminist critiques of landscape architecture as well as water infrastructure and governance in arid landscapes. Recently, Kambic has taught graduate seminars and studios on decentralized water infrastructure, site planning, drawing, and typology. She has also won multiple international design competitions as part of interdisciplinary faculty teams.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.