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

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM, July 10 (Reuters) – As the first passenger rocket prepares for launch, a sleepy desert town near Spaceport America in New Mexico hopes for a takeoff from tourism.

The strangely named town of Truth or Consequences, 30 miles from the launch pad, thrives on its hot springs, healing waters, and the nearby Elephant Butte reservoir.

But tourism has evaporated with the drought, which has brought the reservoir’s water level to record lows. The residents of TorC, as they call it, seek heaven for relief.

“This is really groundbreaking and opens the sky to the world,” said city manager Bruce Swingle, who is hosting a watch party on Sunday for Richard Branson’s launch of Virgin Galactic Holding Inc’s (SPCE.N) Space tourism flight.

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

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

“I’ve always been a sci-fi fan and I love living around the corner where sci-fi becomes science fact,” she said.

Motel bookings have improved as pandemic restrictions have eased and will continue to rise across the city, she said. Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 80 miles south, with its direct route to Spaceport America, will have little impact, she added. “If the people want to come to our city, they come.”

The reservoir, which was originally built for agriculture, has not grown, but has become an important attraction for tourism in the city of 5,800 inhabitants. Recreational activities include boating, fishing, and camping.

The Elephant Butte Reservoir, built between 1911 and 1916, was once 70.81 km long and 11 miles wide. However, after years of drought, the man-made lake is now an estimated 18-20 miles long and 8 miles wide.

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 hit in 1995.

“It’s in a crisis now. All reservoirs. There’s no water to fill the lake. It has to come from the snowpack. And climate forecasts say we just won’t get what we used to get as snowpack,” said Gary Esslinger, Treasurer and Manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

Monsoons bring some water that the district stores in empty drains that can seep into the groundwater and replenish the aquifer, Esslinger said.

But that may not be enough to keep the boats afloat on the reservoir for a long time. The water table has dropped so much this season that marina owner Neal Brown had to move his floating docks to deeper waters, an expensive and labor-intensive task.

On Friday, the reservoir currently held 137,000 hectares of water, which, according to several sources, corresponds to about 7% of its capacity. A spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation said the water level could reach less than 1% of capacity by the second week of August.

Brown fears that if the water level continues to drop, it will be harder for both the community and the ecosystem to recover.

“If it sinks as deep as they predict, I would have to close the marina. I couldn’t swim in it,” he said, adding that the state needs to better manage the incipient water flows in Colorado and come over the Rio Grande through New Mexico. A drought plan with a minimum pool level is also required, Brown added.

Meanwhile, the city, which renamed itself after a radio and television quiz show in 1950, may turn to the spaceport to make up for losses in water tourism, though King is not optimistic.

“We’ll see how many people show up for this launch,” said King. “But I’m telling you we can have 100,000 people here on a July 4th weekend or Memorial Day weekend, and I’m not assuming that would happen on a launch.”

(This story has been reposted to correct typos in the last paragraph)

Reporting by Nathan Frandino; Arrangement by Richard Chang and Diane Craft

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