Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

The declining water level at Elephant Butte Reservoir is constantly on the minds of residents who live there and in the nearby town of Truth or Consequences. A two-decade-long drought has led to low water flows in streams and rivers and a shrinking reservoir lake. Recreational tourism is the primary income for Elephant Butte, while in T or C they also have an eclectic mix of hot springs, retirees, artists and health care to help support the economy. This year both towns can finally add the Spaceport and tycoon Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic glitter for economic support, and all bets are on the table as residents try to recover from the pandemic and a lack of rain.

For 20 years declining snowpack and higher temperatures from climate change have reduced the water levels flowing to New Mexico from the Colorado River Basin, resulting in a failure to restore the Elephant Butte Lake’s reserve of water. The last time the reservoir reached full capacity was in the late 1990s. The lake used to be 44 miles long; now it’s six or seven long and prior to the start of crop irrigation this year was filled to 7 to 8 percent of capacity. The lake is projected to be at 1 percent by August.

It’s clear that, if there is a water puddle in the middle of the desert large enough to camp at, fish in or play with your boats, jet skis and waterboards on top of, tourists from in and out of the state will continue coming there until it becomes a mud puddle. Elephant Butte is well known for drawing huge crowds, with 100,000 and upward not unheard of. The crowds at the lake’s beaches on this past Fourth of July weekend were nearly four groups deep. As public gatherings outside having been given a greenlight from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, aquatic recreation looks like it will continue, at least on weekends and holidays.

Diversification is the name of the game when it comes to these two towns’ economies surviving. Locals have been waiting for lucrative entourages and a stream of wealthy joyriders from around the world to come to Spaceport America and the nearby town. Many are banking on the world’s first commercial spaceport, from which Branson’s Virgin Galactic will soon take millionaire astronauts on jaunts into space. Branson’s yearly rent to use the facility is one million dollars.

Since 2011 several thousand visitors from as far away as Japan, Norway and Russia have gone on three-hour preview tours of the Spaceport facility, which occupies an 18,000-acre site flanked by vast ranches—one of them owned by Ted Turner, the founder of CNN. Area residents hope that the $212 million investment in the high desert spaceport, built with state funds from New Mexico taxpayers, will bring a much-needed lift to the local economy of both towns.

Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences are five miles apart, and pre-COVID-19, after a long day of kayaking on the Rio Grande or playing up at the lake, there was a steady stream of tourists and locals that came to soak in any one of the hot mineral springs in Truth or Consequences. The Mimbres, and later the Apache peoples, came to the geothermal waters that burble to the surface. The area was considered sacred healing grounds by the Indigenous peoples who inhabited it. 

The hot spring spas in T or C that have been closed for the pandemic are slowly reopening. Czesia Claassen, one of the managers for Blackstone Hot Springs in T or C, said she had not noticed a decrease in the amount of people coming into town because of the drought. “Actually, on Memorial Day, Memorial Day and Fourth of July, the lake was packed. I don’t know specific numbers. It was really full of people,” she said.

Blackstone is open with some COVID-19 restrictions. “Check in is contactless, and overnight guests staying in the hotel with the hot springs in the room must be vaccinated,” Claassen said. “If you want to soak in the outdoor private pools that are reserved by the hour, you don’t have to be vaccinated. In between uses we drain, clean and fill the tubs with fresh water for each new client.”

Over the course of the 20th century, the town’s name was changed first to Hot Springs then to Truth or Consequences. In 1950 Ralph Edwards, host of the “Truth or Consequences” radio program, suggested to the Hot Springs, N.M., Chamber of Commerce that the town temporarily change its name for the 10th anniversary of the show. It stuck. Decades later Tor C is still struggling to entice tourists to its hot spring spas, art galleries, stores and cafes. Locals say that name change caused the mineral baths to be forgotten, but today the hot springs seemed to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity prior to the pandemic.

Cyndi Clayton, general manager of La Paloma Hot Springs, said that the main drought-related issue in T or C was the forest fires. “At one time we had 11 fires burning around our city. The smoke has only lifted in the last three or four days—after two and a half, nearly three months, now.”

Clayton said drought doesn’t impact their hot springs water because it’s a closed aquifer. “The water that surfaces at La Paloma is more than 5,000 years old and is recharged from the inner rivers of the planet. We are the last remaining hot springs in a bath house in the continental United States, and the only true hot springs in T or C,” Clayton explained. “The other bathhouses are coming from wells and are not technically free flowing hot springs.”

Employees are hard to come by, and it may be a hindrance to some of the hot springs opening. Clayton said La Poloma plans to reopen after completing some repairs and she is able to hire staff and train them. “We’ve been trying to hire one and a half people for four weeks. You can’t find anybody that wants to work.”