As they suffer through a third year of extreme drought, farmers in the Middle Rio Grande basin of New Mexico are beginning to wonder why they call the great river there “grand” at all.

Last week the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), the agency responsible for allocating irrigation water to farmers and ranchers in central New Mexico, announced it will release the last of its stored water reserves this week and warned rural residents and agriculture related businesses to expect reduced river flows in the days and perhaps weeks and months ahead. 

The District manages the waters of the Rio Grande for a 150-mile stretch beginning at Cochiti Dam in the north to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County. That stretch of river provides irrigation water to all agricultural users through a 1,200 mile system of irrigation canals and ditches that are opened or closed periodically to ensure every water user gets his fair share of the available resource –that is, until water supplies are depleted.

“We are truly at the mercy of Mother Nature now, and rain is our only option for increased water supply,” said MRGCD Hydrologist David Gensler in a statement released last week.

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According to that statement, the Conservancy District will release the last of its supplemental water supply July 1. The District stores water in El Vado Reservoir in northern New Mexico and releases it at peak irrigation times to supplement the natural flow of the Rio Grande. The last of the supplemental water released from El Vado should reach mid-valley irrigators, depending upon their location, between July 3 and July 8.

The District began releasing supplemental water on May 21, earlier than normal because of low flow in the Rio Grande. Now that the supplemental water storage is exhausted, the District must rely on only the natural flow of the river.

“It will be vitally important for all irrigators to schedule their irrigation and share what water is available,” Gensler added, warning that even river's natural flow is limited "until the rains return."

According to the District, the Bureau of Reclamation will be releasing water to benefit the endangered population of the Rio Grande silvery minnow, and a limited amount of water will be available to a number of New Mexico's Pueblo communities.

All eyes now look to the skies for lasting relief from the summer drought. July and August are historically the monsoon period in the mountains of New Mexico and southern Colorado. If the summer monsoons deliver adequate rain, runoff could help recharge over-used reservoirs and could mean additional water available to resume normal irrigation schedules through the end of the season.

As it stands now, all of New Mexico's reservoirs are running at historically low levels.