Drought-hit New Mexico town eyes economic liftoff from Virgin Galactic space launch

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FILE PHOTO: The Rocket Inn is seen in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico May 1, 2014. The world’s first purpose-built commercial space base and soon-to-be site of the first space flights with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is near the town of Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. The inaugural flight into suborbital space should happen later this year and the first astronauts, who have made reservations and paid $250,000 for the flight, should follow a month later. While it’s not clear what the economic impact will be, many agree that Spaceport America should inject new energy into the town. Picture taken May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

July 11, 2021

(Corrects relationship in sixth paragraph to wife)

By Nathan Frandino

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (Reuters) -As the first passenger rocket plane gears up for takeoff, a sleepy desert town near Spaceport America in New Mexico is hoping for a liftoff from tourism.

The oddly named town of Truth or Consequences, 30 miles from the launchpad, relies on its hot springs, healing waters, and nearby Elephant Butte reservoir for its livelihood.

But tourism has evaporated with the drought, which brought the reservoir’s water level toward record lows. Residents of TorC, as they call it, are looking skyward for relief.

“This is real pioneering stuff, opening up the heavens to the entire world,” said town manager Bruce Swingle, who is organizing a watch party on Sunday for Richard Branson’s launch of Virgin Galactic Holding Inc’s space tourism flight.

The town never expected the “lion’s share” of revenue from activities around Spaceport America, but rather a steady stream that would grow alongside the launch facility, he added.

When Val Wilkes and her wife Cydney bought a motor lodge a decade ago, she named it the Rocket Inn.

“I’ve always been a science fiction fan and I love living around the corner from where science fiction is becoming science fact,” she said.

Motel bookings have improved as pandemic curbs have eased, and will keep rising throughout the town, she said. Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 80 miles south, with its direct route to Spaceport America, will have little impact, she added. “If people want to come to our town, they’ll come.”

One thing that has not been rising is the reservoir, originally built for the agricultural industry, but has become a major draw for tourism in the town of 5,800. Recreational activities include boating, fishing and camping.

Built from 1911 to 1916, the Elephant Butte reservoir was once 44 miles (70.81 km) long and 11 miles across. However, after years of drought, the man-made lake is now an estimated 18-20 miles long and 5 miles across.

Rings around the edges show where the water once rested, and Phil King, an engineering consultant for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District said the high water mark was last reached in 1995.

“It’s now in a crisis. All the reservoirs. There is no water to put in the lake. It’s gotta come from snowpack. And climate projections are saying we’re just not going to get what we used to get as snowpack,” said Gary Esslinger, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s treasurer and manager.

Monsoons will bring some water, which the district will store in the empty drains that can seep into the groundwater, refilling the aquifer, Esslinger said.

But that may not be enough to keep boats afloat on the reservoir much longer. Water levels have dropped so much this season that marina owner Neal Brown has had to move his floating docks to deeper waters, an expensive and labor-intensive job.

As of Friday, the reservoir currently was holding 137,000 acre-feet of water, which is about 7% of its capacity, according to multiple sources. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation said the water level could reach less than 1% of capacity by the second week of August.

Brown worries that if the water levels continue to drop, it will be harder for both the community and the ecosystem to recover.

“If it goes as low as they’re predicting, I would have to close the marina. I wouldn’t be able to float in it,” he said, adding that the state needs to do a better job managing the waterflows that begin in Colorado and come down through New Mexico via the Rio Grande. A drought plan with a minimum pool level is also needed, Brown added.

Meanwhile, the city – which renamed itself after a radio and TV quiz show in 1950 – can turn toward Spaceport to make up for any losses in water tourism though King is not optimistic.

“We’ll see how many people show up for this launch,” said King. “But I’ll tell you that on a Fourth of July weekend or a Memorial Day weekend, we can have 100,000 people show up here and I don’t anticipate that that would happen for a launch.”

(Reporting by Nathan FrandinoEditing by Richard Chang, Diane Craft and Frances Kerry)





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