Two years of unrelenting drought with little hope of substantial relief in the near future has prompted federal officials to issue a warning to farmers and irrigation districts along the Rio Grande River north of Elephant Butte Reservoir that they may receive as much as twenty percent less water from the river in 2013 than they did this year.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) officials have been carefully monitoring water reserves in the San Juan-Chama project watershed, a series of tunnels and dams on the Chama River that funnels water through the Great Divide to the Rio Grande. Completed in the 1970s, the project was constructed as a way to increase water availability in drier months to water users in the middle Rio Grande Basin.

Most affected by the expected curtailment will be Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District farmers and the Albuquerque metro area’s government water utility. USBR’s Mike Hamman says this represents the first time water would be curtailed from the project and blamed the extended drought for water depletion in the project area.

Hamman says the Bureau is telling irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Basin that they may receive only about eighty percent of their usual allotment unless heavy snow should fall this winter to replenish supplies, an event that is not expected to happen. Snowpack in the Rio Grande headwaters that feed the San Juan-Chama project is currently just 33 percent of average for this time of year, with almost no snow in the last month.

“We’re not at the panic stage yet,” Hamman reports, but he says how much snow falls—or doesn’t fall this winter—will determine the levels of curtailment in the spring and summer next year he says.

The San Juan-Chama project is a federal initiative designed to deliver a portion of New Mexico’s share of Colorado River Basin water from the San Juan Basin to the more densely populated Rio Grande Valley.

Forecasters are calling for a continuation of drought conditions into 2013 and, once again, less snow this winter season.

More than a dozen municipal water agencies and irrigation districts will be affected by the curtailment, but the City of Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Valley District are the largest agencies and serve the largest number of water end-users.

While City of Albuquerque officials say they are prepared to deal with curtailments because of other water storage on hand, farmers just above Elephant Butte will feel the blunt of the reduced allotment.

Conservancy District officials say a 20 percent shortfall in their annual allotment would reduced the amount of water available to farmers and could mean that irrigation seasons would need to be adjusted, ending a week or two before normal.

Albuquerque and Conservancy District officials say they are not happy over the potential water shortfall but say it is understandable given the seriousness and longevity of the current drought. According to the Bureau of Reclamation, a dry year on the headwaters of the San Juan River this year means just 46,650 acre-feet of water was diverted through the Azotea tunnel for use on this side of the continental divide – less than half the normal allocation of 96,200 acre feet.