Framework

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In New Mexico, water levels in the once-mighty Rio Grande are so low that it is often referred to as the "Rio Sand." The state is suffering the worst effects of a drought that has left much of the West parched. Ranchers and farmers are suffering, and cities are low on drinking water. In some parts of the state, officials fear ecosystems are collapsing.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

The demise of native grasses during the drought in New Mexico, thought to be the worst since the 1950s, has been devastating to ranchers who have long relied on grazing to feed cattle. Many have had to sell their herds or move them elsewhere.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Biologists and land managers inspect rangeland near Las Cruces, N.M. Across the West, kicking a boot toe into soil or dragging a heel across the desert's crust is standard procedure for checking the landscape. In New Mexico these days, it usually yields nothing but bad news in a puff of dust.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

John Clayshulte casts a shadow over land were some of his pecan trees are planted near Las Cruces. Because of the drought, he has had to remove his cattle from his federal grazing allotment. Now he wonders whether the land will ever recover. "This used to be shortgrass prairies," he says. "We've ruined it, and it's never going to come back."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Reservoirs in New Mexico have dwindled to 17% of their capacity. It's even lower at the Elephant Butte reservoir in the southern part of the state, where campers and boaters have to drive on the former lake bed to reach the water's edge.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

A battered sign seems to sum up the mood in the driest parts of New Mexico, where many ranchers have had to remove their herds from federal grazing allotments.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Black Grama prairie grass, long a feature of New Mexico desert lands, is disappearing in the drought and being overrun by shrubs that are hardier but make poor feed for cattle.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Some areas of land that once could support a couple dozen cows can now support only a few.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Dead pecan trees line an orchard in La Mesa south of Las Cruces, N.M.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Recent monsoon rains have been welcome but aren't enough to help drought-stricken land recover.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

Clouds form over a dead mesquite bush near Caballo in southwestern New Mexico. Recent above-average monsoon rains "won't make a dent" in the drought, one meteorologist says. Recovery would take several years of normal rainfall.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

An orchard of pecan trees is irrigated by increasingly precious groundwater. Farmers who can't afford to dig deep wells that can cost more than $100,000 are often out of luck.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

It's still possible to swim in the Rio Grande, but it's getting more difficult.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Michael Robinson Chavez

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Western U.S. under severe drought

The American West is experiencing a devastating drought, but no state is more parched than New Mexico. The entire state is officially in a drought, and scientists, farmers and ranchers are trying to figure out how to cope. One burning question: Is this climate change, or just a brutal aberration? Either way, the ecosystem may be irreversibly damaged.

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