About Las Cruces – Geology and Landscape

Let me see if I can squeeze the essence of Las Cruces into this blog for my mates in Queensland.

During the Paleozoic Era, this region was on the edge of a sea.  The largest formation of fossilized critter trackways from this era lie in the Robledo Mountains on the NW side of the city.

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Various volcanic and geologic forces resulted in a valley eroded by what came to be called the Rio Grande (Big River), surrounded by various mountain formations, the aforementioned Robledos and Picacho Peak to the west, the Dona Ana mountains to the north, the most dramatic Organ Mountains (named for their resemblance to organ pipes) to the east, and further south some relatively recent volcanic cones, followed by the distant Franklin Mountains near the large twin cities of El Paso, Texas and Cuidad Juarez, Mexico to the southeast.

Image Picacho Peak

ImageDona Ana Mountains

ImageThe Organ Mountains from Dona Ana hills

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Las Cruces sits at about 4000 foot elevation (1300 m) with the highest Organ peaks over 9000 feet (3000 m).  It is in the floodplain of the Rio Grande and has suffered flooding in the past, similar to the recent Bundaberg experiences, but is dry much of the year especially with the current severe drought.

Image Dry Rio Grande with Organs in distance.

The city is surrounded by flat desert plains and mesas, cut by numerous arroyos (dry washes and canyons carved by flash floods).  These have scrub brush, cactus and succulent plants native to the broader Chihuahuan desert stretching far south into Mexico, which is less than an hour away.

Image Desert and arroyos on the mesa between Las Cruces and the Organs

Native Americans inhabited this area for many thousands of years, living in caves, canyons, by the river, and frequently migrating and trading great distances.  In some areas they left petroglyph carvings on the rocks, at least one of which bears an uncanny resemblance to me on a bad hair morning.

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The river valley was more or less tamed and converted from the dense “bosque” brush and cottonwood trees into farm fields and orchards, primarily for chile peppers, pecans, onions, and cotton.  Although rapidly changing, the city and surroundings still have a strong agricultural flavor.

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Image Chile fields

Image Pecan grove flooded for irrigation

Image  My painting of an onion field in bloom near Mesilla.

Since this area is considered high desert, it doesn’t get as hot as some of the states to the east and west, but still peaks well over 100 degrees F (40 C) in the summer. Winters can drop below freezing but often the days remain pleasant in the seemingly endless sunshine.  A serious extended freeze a few years ago killed much of the cactus and palms in the area.  Rain is infrequent, usually in the summer and fall, but is often very dramatic and violent.  The weather most on peoples lips is the sometimes extreme spring winds and associated dust storms.

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5 thoughts on “About Las Cruces – Geology and Landscape

  1. This is great Dave, thank you. What a stunning landscape. So when in drought, does the city’s drinking and irrigating water still come from the river or is it groundwater?

    We are on tank and groundwater here, as the nearest big source is 30km away – that’s the Burnett River which gave the region a little too much water earlier this year.

  2. Thanks Dave for all this interesting information….It must have taken some time to put together. You are lucky to be surrounded by such striking mountain ranges. They look so beautiful. Thankyou for all the effort you put in to answering my post. cx PS: Great photos!

  3. Adrienne, a sizable portion of the water is coming from aquifers at this point, which of course can only go so far. They have a pretty complex system of water rights built around an acequia (ditch) system of management that goes back quite a few hundred years to the Spanish colonial time. I’ve only scratched the surface of understanding it, but at moment there are plenty of legal saber rattlings going on with Texas communities downstream who don’t think they are getting the water they are “entitled” to from earlier agreements with New Mexico. I think you may be familiar with some of this wrangling from all the trouble in recent years in the Murray Basin. Lots of competing urban, agricultural, and wildlife needs.

  4. I remember being somewhat shocked when I discovered that the ‘famous’ Rio Grande actually stopped flowing and dried up. The system of water allocation and collection goes all the way along the rivers’ length, with everyone demanding a share of a scarce resource. By the time it gets to Las Cruces there’s not a whole lot of water left. One thing that has stayed with me is being taken to help ‘water the bees’ … What could this possibly mean I thought? When the river dries up completely, farmers are forced to provide a supply of fresh water to keep their bees alive. A shallow bowl is placed near the hive, with a flat rock and a piece of cotton cloth draped across it to act as a wick and soak up the water. The bees can land on the damp cloth and suck enough moisture to survive. If they accidentally fall into the bowl, the cloth and rock enable them to get out again, rather than drowning. Some farmers also use a larger plastic bottle with a cotton wick blocking the neck and trailing onto the ground.

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