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.

Groundwater offers help, but that could change

In addition to the devastating drought, New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande and Southern Rio Grande basin farmers are concerned over pending federal litigation initiated by the State of Texas. At risk is the ability of New Mexico farmers to pump ground water from aquifers supported by the river. In times of extreme drought, the only source of water to support crops and livestock are groundwater wells. Without them, not only would crops fail and livestock suffer, but pecan growers in Dona Ana County, the nation's leading pecan-producing county, could lose their trees.

Even with the ability to pump groundwater, growers say production cost increases eat deeply into profits. But without it, they have little hope of bringing a crop to harvest.

South of pecan country and across the state line, irrigation districts in Texas are also thirsty for water. In 2008—after years of bickering over waters of the Rio Grande—New Mexico and Texas water officials finally agreed on a plan to distribute water between the two states. But New Mexico Attorney General Gary King decided the agreement was unfair to farmers in his state and filed suit to terminate the agreement.

The State of Texas fired back by filing a federal lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court charging New Mexico uses an excessive amount of water from the Rio Grande. Also at issue is pumping water from wells in areas considered to be recharge zones for the Rio Grande. If the federal lawsuit moves forward and the court rules in favor of Texas, ensuing disaster awaits New Mexico's farm and ranch community. The court could make groundwater pumping illegal, virtually destroying any hope of successful agriculture in New Mexico during dry years.

One of the hardest hit areas would be Hatch, New Mexico, the chili capital of the nation. Farmers there say pumping groundwater from wells has been the only saving grace to their chili pepper season over the past several years.

New Mexico farmers, like their Texas counterparts, say the only real hope for surviving the drought is a return of normal annual rainfall. While last year's monsoons proved to be a disappointment and failed to relieve drought conditions, most growers and stockmen in New Mexico say they are holding out hope this year's monsoon season will be different.

As always, it depends on the weather.

 

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