There is good news and bad news for Middle Rio Grande Valley farmers in New Mexico who are anxiously awaiting Monday's start to the new irrigation season.
Thanks to record rainfalls late last year, there is cause for optimism that farmers may be getting more irrigation water than last year. But Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District hydrologist David Gensler warns that not all that glitters is gold.
"The best we can hope for as it stands now is about 60,000 acre-feet in storage this year,” he told MRGCD board of directors at a water bank meeting in Albuquerque last month.
Gensler said last year the district was limited to only about 42,000 acre feet.
"Right now we are looking at about 5,000 acre feet that we have in storage with more to come," he added.
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The District depends on the resources Mother Nature provides to set water bank irrigation allocations each year. That includes rainfall in the fall through the winter and spring seasons and, more importantly, the amount of snowmelt realized each spring.
New Mexico water officials say the snowmelt provides the lion's share of irrigation water statewide each year; in recent years that has been much less than normal. Water district officials say below normal snowfall has been the norm for the last three winters, and in spite of a good start to this winter season, snowfall averages have dropped off and have been below normal since the first of the year.
Winter storm helped
But last week's winter storm that hit the northern New Mexico mountains provided moderate to heavy snowfall, which is encouraging, though the forecast for the next two weeks and the fast approaching spring season could mean the best of the winter snow showers are over.
Also of concern, MRGCD director Chris Sichler said recently that his district will only be getting a portion of the water delivered last year from the San Juan-Chama Project, and that is cause for concern.
The district has been promised 15,000 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama Project water this year, about 21,000 acre feet less than the district received last year. The project was developed by the U.S Bureau of Reclamation and designed to provide water to municipal, domestic and industrial users. But the water can be used to supplement irrigation water as well. The project has been operating since 1971.
State water officials say water collected at the project comes from the San Juan River and is funneled into the Rio Chama, which serves as a tributary of the Rio Grande. Sichler says the state has promised an additional 40,000 acre-feet, depending on spring rains, and this would help middle river basin farmers to get irrigation water throughout the spring season.
But Gensler is warning that unless the rains return this spring, there remains a chance farmers will run out of irrigation water by the end of May.
The MRGCD special water bank was established to provide a way for farmers to irrigate lands in the district from property where water rights have been severed, in other words, water that would be available because it had not been and was not going to be used or because of the transfer or sale of water rights. Farmers can lease this irrigation water, made available because other land in the district is no longer capable of being irrigated for various reasons, including the construction of roadways or building projects.
Gensler says farmers need to remember that a new water bank policy went into effect this year. Under the terms of that policy, water bank users will have irrigation cut off if the amount of water in storage and flowing in the Rio Grande drops below monthly parameter, which have been published on the district's website. Irrigators who do not use the water bank will not be subject to this new policy.
On the up side, the hydrologist says irrigation water, subject to curtailment, can and will resume to farmers if conditions warrant, meaning river flows or reservoir levels increase as a result of rain and run-off.
Officials say if natural spring run-off doesn't materialize or fails to provide enough water to meet demands, the district must rely on stored water to keep farmers irrigated. But currently there is little water in storage, a condition state water officials say will improve during the annual snowmelt.
If the forecast is right and another dry summer occurs, farmers should expect water shortages as early as late May or June and certainly by the peak of summer.
But Gensler says middle basin farmers may be in better shape than other farmers across the state who depend on reservoir levels alone for irrigation, especially growers around Carlsbad and Fort Sumner.