By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
Tucumcari Lake may technically be only a drainage pond, but until recently, it had been a part of the city’s landscape — and one of the city’s attractions — for generations.
A 1992 entry on USA Today’s website on Tucumcari reads, “The 770-acre Tucumcari State Wildlife Area offers year-round outdoor entertainment along the 430-acre Tucumcari Lake. Activities include fishing, boating, camping and wildlife viewing, particularly birds. Ducks, geese, eagles, doves, quail and pheasants come to the area because of the shallowness of the lake.”
Equivalent language describes the lake on the Tucumcari Chamber of Commerce’s web site.
Currently, only a small farm-pond size pool surrounded by reeds contains water in the shallow lake bed that covers much of the area bounded by U.S. 54 on the west and north, Route 66 Boulevard on the south, and Quay Road AM on the east. The rest is dry, a victim of the area’s continuing, severe drought.
Liz Glenn, Tucumcari District Wildlife Officer for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, brought the lake to the attention of the Tucumcari City Commission at a workshop Thursday before the commission’s regular meeting.
She said the lake drew her attention as an underused resource she surveyed her assigned territory recently.
Now, she says, she is looking for some ideas on how the lake area could be developed in case water returns to the lakebed, and ways for the lake to regain a stable supply of water.
City Commissioner Robert Lumpkin, who serves on several water-related boards, said that in earlier years, the lake was a part of the flyway for migratory waterfowl, including ducks, geese and cranes. He said that recent predictions for rainfall in the near future “are not good,” but if the lake could find a sustainable source of water, it could become attractive as a hunting area, a wildlife preserve or an ecological outdoor educational area.
Lumpkin said the lake’s water supply depends on drainage from surrounding land, city storm drains and some from Arch Hurley Conservancy District resources. All of sources, however , have depleted due to drought.
Signs still standing at the lake site note its past status as a wildlife refuge and study area. A ribbed concrete boat ramp leads from a dirt parking lot to the dry lake bed.
Former Commissioner Jimmy Sandoval had advocated for development of the lake area. He said he would have liked the lake area to be used again as a wildlife sanctuary.
City Manager Doug Powers handed out drawings, one made by Bill Curry, a local artist, that outline lakeside camping and picnic areas, as well as other amenities, that could be developed along the lake’s northern shore, the most accessible shoreline, due to well-used unpaved roads to the shore.
Glenn said that the lake’s ability to sustain a water supply would be enhanced if salt cedar and possibly other thirsty, invasive plant species could be removed from the lakeshore. Lumpkin agreed, noting that a single salt cedar plant can draw as much as 300 gallons a day from a waterway.
He referred Glenn to salt-cedar eradication specialists who have worked around Ute Lake to reduce salt cedar, which might improve water retention should water supplies be renewed there.
Glenn said she wants to do more research on the lake’s possibilities.
Gretchen Gürtler, director of the Mesalands Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory, said Mesalands would be willing to participate in any studies of Tucumcari Lake to assess its potential as a recreational or ecological study area.
Not everyone is looking forward to the lake’s revival, however. Arch Hurley Conservancy District Manager Franklin McCasland said that filling the lake often results in high cost for the district because it is required to pump away Tucumcari Lake water in excess of a certain elevation as the result of litigation that occurred in the 1970s.