Floods in New Mexico: Sometimes We Get Too Much Rain Too Fast

By Doyle Daves Las Vegas Citizens Committee for Historic Preservation

The complete article by Doyle Daves

Excerpted on Page 16 The Corridor Quarterly Magazine Fall 2019

The past winter and spring brought New Mexico more snow and rain than we have experienced in a long time; everyone is delighted that, at least for a while, everything is green and growing.  Our default attitude is that moisture is good – the more the better!  However, more often than we tend to remember, we do get more water faster than New Mexico’s usually parched earth can handle.  Who remembers that just last year, July 23, 2018, Santa Fe was inundated when three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The New Mexican reported that “the hellacious deluge nearly washed away the City Different” and called it a 1,000 year event.  Or that the 2013 monsoon caused flooding all across New Mexico: meteorologists called it a 50-year event; many areas got more rain in five days than is normal for an entire year. 

In Las Vegas where I live, the water level on the Gallinas came within six inches of the top of the National Avenue bridge despite the many upstream dams. Weather records indicate that 1941 was the wettest year ever in New Mexico; that year the  average precipitation across the state was about 27 inches; essentially double the norm.  Most of the rain came in two great storms, one in May and the second in September. Both led to flooding.  The Rio Grande was far out of its banks in many places; Elephant Butte Reservoir filled for the first time since its construction in 1916.  Many bridges from Albuquerque south were washed out and a gas line was severed leaving the city without service for ten days. Every street in Roswell washed away; all irrigation ditches in Lincoln County were washed out. The two hardest hit areas were in the Gila River basin of southwestern New Mexico and the Carlsbad area of southeastern New Mexico. In these two very different areas, a total of 24 people lost their lives in the flooding. Carlsbad received 11 inches of rain in a day and 1,000 homes had to be abandoned. Las Vegas experienced its worst flood, not in 1941 but in 1904. That year, five inches of rain fell in four days and, on September 29, the Gallinas River, usually a very small stream, roared through the middle of Las Vegas “a quarter of a mile wide and many feet deep” destroying property and washing out many dams and bridges and destroying the railroad bed.  The railroad platform and station “was broken in a thousand pieces and floated down the raging stream.”  No one was killed at Las Vegas; however, other towns were not so lucky.  In the tiny community of Chaperito, down stream on the Gallinas, four were drowned.  Twenty miles north of Las Vegas at Watrous, where both the Mora and Sapello Rivers flooded, half the town was washed away and twelve people were drowned.  Similarly at Springer, on the Canadian River, twelve drowned. The floods I have mentioned are only a small sampling; there have been many more over the years.  In semi-arid New Mexico, water is truly a blessing.  However, if it comes too fast in such quantities that it cannot be absorbed, run-off water can cause great damage and even loss of life. The record makes clear that we need to be careful what we wish for!