By Nona Shipman, One World One Water Center MSU Denver

English: Blue Hole lake of Santa Rosa, NM show...

“Whatever happened to Santa Rosa, New Mexico?” In 100 years, questioning the existence of an entire town in New Mexico may not be that shocking.  New Mexico, like Colorado, struggles with drought and water supply. So how is it that the small town of Santa Rosa is so “water rich” it is almost drowning? In October 2013, I was fortunate enough to be invited on an MSU Denver school trip to New Mexico with students searching for unique water stories to tell– what we found was Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa, NM sits about 100 miles east of Albuquerque and is known as the “City of Natural Lakes”. You may know it as the home to The Blue Hole, an 81ft deep sinkhole that is naturally fed from a spring and sends water to several lakes downstream. Hundreds of people each year come to The Blue Hole to become deep-sea scuba diving certified or to simply take a dip in the bright blue water that remains 63 degrees all year round. When I arrived in Santa Rosa with three MSU Denver students, we passed by what seemed to be several road closures resulting from a leaky water pipe. Not thinking much of it, we made our way to The Blue Hole where we spent several hours cliff jumping, swimming, and interviewing visitors. One visitor alerted us to the fact that the leaky pipe in town was actually a natural spring gone out of control. How is that possible? How can it be that in dry, arid New Mexico there was too much water flowing that it couldn’t be contained? Curious to see more we returned to town.

As I walked towards the orange cones and caution tape lining the street, I found streams of water flowing in all directions, making it hard to pinpoint where the water was all coming from (see a video here). Was it coming from the roadside-ditch-turned-pond? Or from under the sewer cap bubbling up water into the road? Or how about the now vacant house on the corner that had been flooded and had a swamp for a yard? I found what I think was the point of origin smack dab in the middle of the road. A large square of concrete had been removed and there, left in its place, was water bubbling and gurgling up from the ground. I had never seen anything like it! This spring was powerful.  

The town of Santa Rosa is at an elevation of 4,600ft, the lowest point in the surrounding six miles. The groundwater from the surrounding area flows to Santa Rosa filling the lakes, rivers, sinkholes, and springs. According to a friendly gentleman doing yard work across the street from a line of orange caution cones, there had been heavy rainfall two months earlier causing the spring to overflow. The spring had been flowing nonstop, strong and wild for two whole months. The man said the town didn’t know how to stop it so they just let it flow–thus far the spring was showing no signs of slowing down.

The gentleman admitted his concerns for the future. He had grown up in Santa Rosa, lived there for 50 years, and intended to stay but was worried about the damage this spring had done and how it was managed. What if this happened again? What if it is worse? What if next time it was his house that was flooded and destroyed? With little resources in a town of just over 2,800 residents, what more could they do next time? Weather patterns are becoming more extreme and unpredictable; the American west struggles with drought one month and 100 year floods the next. What will happen to the small town that sits at the bottom of it all?

nonaNona Shipman is the Manager of the One World One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship located at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She is an environmentalist and pet enthusiast. 

The Social Documentary class will focus all of their stories on water in the west and those whose livelihood depends on it for the next four semesters. Nona was invited on the New Mexico trip to help students tell the stories of their subjects and make a personal connection with water. Water Studies students at MSU Denver are given the opportunity to travel around the west on trips like this one, join rafting adventures, go on tours and field trips, and attend educational presentations in addition to becoming empowered water stewards! Learn more about the OWOW Center and Water Studies at www.msudenver.edu/owow.

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11 thoughts on “Sinkholes, Students and Santa Rosa

    1. It is also interesting to note that Blue Hole is actually over 200 feet deep. I recently did my open water certification in Blue hole, and we learned about the history of the hole. It is believed that the Blue Hole may go all the way into Wyoming, It is not known for sure because the caves of the blue hole are thin so no diver could make it to the bottom simply because their equipment would not fit. It is also interesting to note that blue hole stays the same temperature year round which makes it ideal for diving since the weather will not affect the water temperature.
      Blue hole is ideal for both open water and advanced diving certifications because of it’s depth. As I said earlier I was recently open water certified and our group was only allowed to go to a depth of 30 feet since it was our first real dive. The advanced group that went on our dive trip went on a night water dive at the bottom of the hole and said it was interesting. Blue hole is a remarkable sinkhole and it is interesting to note that it is one of the largest dive sites in the west! Who knew that a sinkhole in the middle of New Mexico would be one of the biggest dive sites for Coloradan’s, Arizonian’s, and New Mexicans!

  1. This piece is interesting because article about the western states, feeding from the Colorado River, the most common conclusion to jump to is drought. This article, being actually the opposite of that problem is surprising. Are there any possible solutions for tackling this problem? Would there be a way in which the town could preserve the run off of water instead of letting it go? The water could possibly be collected, filtered, and transported to help the other western states in drought. Like the author said, the weather is changing drastically year to year month to month. This is something lower elevation towns need to realize and be prepared for. With enough preparation, this overflow of water could be very beneficial to other states in need.

  2. This article is greatly written and is fascinating to me because I just attended an event sponsored by CU Environmental Center and they talked about the reasoning behind these extreme weather patterns that we are seeing today. It’s interesting because when Santa Rosa was built, it wasn’t made to withstand the abundance amount of water that they are recently experiencing. Santa Rosa, being in the middle of a dessert, has never experienced these massive floods, so why this sudden change? Well according the CU Environmental Center, these chaotic weather patterns are due to the increase use of Carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions that our nation is using for human industrialization processes.
    I am currently a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder and our town had a similar experience when an unexpected flood destroyed many homes and buildings in the area. Just like Santa Rosa, Boulder is not use to getting a lot of rainfall and therefore our town was not fully equipped to withstand the flood like we did this past September. I believe the best way to go about situations that Santa Rosa and Boulder experienced is to prepare for the unpredictable. Santa Rosa can’t just hope that these floods will stop. These weather patterns are erratic making its hard for anyone to know what may happen next. Santa Rosa, and other town’s like this need to take this problem head on. One idea is to collect the excess water and transport it to towns that are in drought or in need of water. Also, towns like this need to spend the time and money in order to get the appropriate resources to handle severe flooding. I hope that the cities that do not have a backup system for whenever a flood might occur use Boulder and Santa Rosa as a learning experience. Taking the necessary precautions can ultimately save a city for whenever a flood may strike.

  3. The gentleman who was concerned about the damage the spring had done and the management of the spring is an interesting perspective. As the article mention weather patterns are becoming more unpredictable. This makes me wonder how local governments and water management bureaucracies will manage waterways in the future. In the case of Santa Rosa, heavy rainfall created a surplus of water in an arid region. Should that happen again or become a pattern I wonder if governments will choose to save the water or divert it to other areas nearby. I also wonder what plans have been made to prevent damage in the case of future floods. The water is a great thing to have, but it should be managed as to not destroy Santa Rosa and saved in case of future drought. I predict that management of water in an unpredictable climate will increasingly become a problem for governments and water management bureaucracies in which they must weigh present use against future use of the water resources they have.

  4. This article was very interesting due to the fact that it pinpoints a problem unlike any I have any heard for New Mexico. When I think of New Mexico, I immediately think of extreme drought. I will definitely follow up on this continuation of this problem, how it is solved, and what it will lead to.

  5. Very interesting article Nona! Not only does New Mexico and Colorado struggle with drought and water supply, my state and hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada does as well. I heard rumors that if nothing is done in 10 or so years, Las Vegas will run out of water but recently learned that state water engineers are allowing the city to go ahead with a plan to draw water from four thinly populated valleys of eastern Nevada. They will be pumping water across 300 miles of desert! It’s amazing that we’re getting to the point where our major cities could possibly run out of water. To hear about this oasis town of Santa Rosa in a state affected by drought and lack of water supply almost as much as Nevada is incredible to me. I would love to visit the town and hopefully do some cliff diving and swimming in the sinkhole but hope that when I do visit I don’t witness increased harmful effects from this overflow of underground springs. Having seen firsthand the power and detrimental effects water can have on society from the Boulder flood, I pray the water dies down and doesn’t get too out of hand. While no one knows what will happen to this small town, maybe actions can be implemented to obtain the excess water “bubbling” up from the ground and distribute it to different parts of the states that lack water.

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