Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge biologist Jeff Sanchez moves water from one wetland to another, Tuesday. (Mark Wilson Photo)
Emily Russo Miller
Record Staff Writer
A little rain goes a long way in exceptional drought conditions.
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge reported Tuesday that it received nearly three-quarters of an inch of rainfall over the weekend, providing much needed moisture to its wetlands that are at an all-time low capacity.
“We’re starting to see signs of relief,” refuge biologist Jeffrey Sanchez said in an interview. “We had a little bit of rain that’s helping out, and the days are getting a little bit cooler — this week at least — so evaporation will go down. Hopefully, we’re turning the corner.”
Three-quarters of an inch doesn’t sound like much, but Sanchez says it’s enough to provide sheet water for shore birds and ducks that are just beginning to migrate onto the refuge. It also was enough rain for Sanchez to spread water from one wetland to the next, using the refuge’s irrigation system that connects nine actively managed wetland impoundments to ensure the habitat is ready for the arrival of the sandhill cranes. The cranes begin to trickle in now and peak in numbers as high as 28,000 in late October.
“My big water management action is to move water from Unit Three into Unit Five and provide this sheet water habitat within both units, spreading out the sheet water,” he said, adding he would adjust his plan if another rain event occurred. “And then also I’m going to flood what we call a restoration unit in order to provide habitat for the ducks that are moving in, the shore birds that are moving in, and dragonflies.”
The rain fell just in time for the Dragonfly Festival, to be held this Saturday, Sanchez added. All dragonflies need is a little puddle to spark their breeding activity.
“This is perfect,” Sanchez said. “It actually came at a good time. We’re going to have more dragonflies here on this restoration unit that I’m going to flood, so it will be a prime habitat for dragonflies.”
Before the rainfall on Friday evening, the refuge reported that it had received a mere 1⁄2 inch of rain since the beginning of the year, drastically low compared to its usual lush 12 inches per year. The wetlands continue to suffer as the exceptional drought conditions persist, the worst drought category possible, and they remain below 50 percent full capacity.
One wetland was completely dry as of Tuesday afternoon, and others well below capacity. But northern pintail ducks swam in at least one wetland, which Sanchez said was almost at its proper water level, and some of the wetlands do not need to be 100 percent full capacity, as some species like sandhill cranes require just two to five inches of water to stand in as they roost to protect themselves from ground predators.
But in order for things to be normal, Sanchez says an additional two inches of rain would be required.
“An additional two inches would be great,” he said. “That would probably put us at a more typical September-October wetland water impoundment level. A couple of good downpours would really help.”
The last time the refuge received more than one inch of water was Oct. 23 last year. The first seven months of 2011 have been the driest start to any year on record for New Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric’s National Weather Service Office, and through August, about 40 percent of the state remains in exceptional drought, while 75 percent of the state remains in extreme to exceptional drought. The statewide average precipitation has only been 42 percent of normal through July 2011.