pup fish

Tularosa Basin

The Tularosa Basin is a graben basin in the basin and range area east of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, mostly in Otero County. It covers about 6,500 sq. miles (35% larger than Connecticut). It lies between the Sacramento Mountains to the east and the San Andres and Oscura Mountains to the west. The basin stretches about 150 miles north-south, and at its widest is about 60 miles east-west. It is properly considered part of the Rio Grande Rift zone, which widens there due to the slight clockwise rotation of the Colorado Plateau tectonic plate. The basin is closed to the north by Chupadera Mesa and to the south by the Franklin and Hueco Mountains. Notable features of the basin include White Sands National Monument, White Sands Missile Range, Trinity Site and the Carrizozo lava flows. The Tularosa Creek flows west into the Tularosa Basin just north of the village of Tularosa. It is not to be confused with the Tularosa River, which is in Catron County.

Hydrologically, the Tularosa Basin is a closed basin, no streams flow out. Surface water that doesn’t evaporate or soak into the ground eventually accumulates at playas (intermittent lakes), the largest of which is Lake Lucero at the southwest end of White Sands. To the north of lake Lucero there are extensive alkali flats, which today produce additional gypsum for White Sands.


When the Spanish arrived in the Tularosa Basin they found springs and small streams coming from the Sacramento Mountains that fed a relatively lush grassland on the eastern side of the basin. While some sheep ranching was tried by the Spanish, and some mining, the area remained firmly under Apache control until the 1850s when the United States established its military presence at Fort Stanton (in the Sacramento Mountains (1855-1896), Torreon Fort (near Lincoln) (1850s), and Camp Comfort (1858 - 1859) at White Sands. Under US military protection the first permanent settlement was established in 1862, when approx. 50 Hispanic farmers from the Rio Grande Valley moved to Tularosa. Efforts to control the Apache waned somewhat during the American Civil War and serious Anglo settlement did not began until the late 1870s when settlers and cattlemen from Texas began moving into the basin.

The grasslands in the Tularosa Basin were able to support large herds in the wet years of the 1880s. When the Anglos first started running cattle, in some places the grass grew as high as a horse’s shoulder. One cowboy estimated that 85,000 head were mustered in 1889 in the basin, but said that that was “far too heavy a burden for the range.” The following years were ones of severe drought, and the pastures have never recovered from the consequent over-grazing and erosion which continued in many instances for 75 or more years. Even on the White Sands Missile Range where cattle grazing was virtually eliminated in 1945, the effects of overgrazing prevalent in the 1890 -1945 period can still be seen almost everywhere. For example, many areas that were known historically to be rich grasslands can now be characterized as desert scrub lands where creosote bush predominates.

Since surface water was unable to sustain the cattle herds, the ranchers turned to ground water, and the easily reachable sweet water was mined out from under the basin, leaving only brackish water. Applying the ground water to the surface resulted in additional salts being dissolved and transported back down into the ground water. This increased the salinity of the ground water and by the year 2000 it was recognized that salt in the groundwater needed to be significantly reduced if existing levels of water usage were to continue. The Tularosa Basin National Desalination Research Facility was established in Alamogordo in 2004 as a joint project of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and Sandia National Laboratories. It is a national center for researching desalting of the brackish groundwater typically found in inland basins.


Because of the closed nature of the basin, a number of unique ecological niches have developed. There are a significant number of species which only occur in the Tularosa Basin. These include the White Sands pup-fish and the Oscura Mountains Chipmunk.

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