Scientists in the West have a particular way of walking a landscape and divining its secrets: They kick a toe into loamy soil or drag a boot heel across the desert's crust, leaning down to squint at the tiny excavation.
Try that maneuver in New Mexico these days and it yields nothing but bad news in a puff of dust.
Across the West, changes in the climate are taking a toll. Almost 87% of the region is in a drought.
Nevada is removing wild horses and stocks of cattle from federal rangelands, Wyoming is seeding clouds as part of a long-term "weather modification program," officials in Colorado say the state's southeastern plains are experiencing Dust Bowl conditions, and the entire western U.S. has been beset by more frequent and ferocious wildfires across an ever-more combustible landscape.
But nowhere is it worse than in New Mexico. In this parched state, the question is no longer how much worse it can get but whether it will ever get better — and, ominously, whether collapsing ecosystems can recover even if it does.
The statistics are sobering: All of New Mexico is officially in a drought, and three-quarters of it is categorized as severe or exceptional. Reservoir storage statewide is 17% of normal, lowest in the West. Residents of some towns subsist on trucked-in water, and others are drilling deep wells costing $100,000 or more to sink and still more to operate.