It comes as little surprise to most farmers and ranchers in New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Valley River Basin, but now that summer's end is near, irrigation district's across the region have cut off or plan to shut off irrigation water releases until at least next spring.

According to Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) officials, water flow in the river has been greatly reduced now that the gates at Elephant Butte Reservoir have been closed, increasing demand on what little water remains in Caballo Reservior just north of Hatch, the State's richest chili pepper production area.

The cut off of irrigation water will have little impact on the chili pepper industry in southern New Mexico, partly because of recent rains but mostly because pepper harvest is already underway and the last thing farmers want now is more water on their fields.

Water officials say it is just a matter of days before the flow of water in the Rio Grande will slow to a trickle, ultimately bringing the river to a bone-dry stage unless unexpected rains provide scant relief, likely only for a day or two.

The exception will be timely releases of water into the river that will be earmarked for farmers in Texas at the neighboring El Paso County Irrigation District No. 1, which is still receiving its guaranteed share of water releases. But these deliveries will end Aug. 22, virtually guaranteeing a dry river until next year.

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The 90,000-acre Elephant Butte Irrigation District suspended its season July 31, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports a northern Mexico irrigation district also ended its season. But water officials on both sides of the border report that while their seasons have ended, irrigation water pumped through the system this year represents an improvement over last year.

EBID officials say the river still remains overtaxed, however, and in spite of late season rains the region has received little hope of drought conditions significantly improving in the immediate future. The best hope for additional water next year rests with the possibility of substantial mountain snows this winter.

Pecan growers in the Las Cruces area say they will be negatively affected by another year of early-season cutoffs. With nuts just now reaching a period of robust growth, a shortage of irrigation water will likely stress orchards even further. Last year the state led the nation in total commercial production of pecans. But in spite of an off-year in pecan’s alternate bearing production cycle in New Mexico, early estimates pegged New Mexico's pecan production this year at a healthy 55 million pounds.

Las Cruces area grower Les Fletcher says in spite of better rainfall late last year and increased rains last month, irrigation allotments from the river once again were "extremely unsatisfactory."  He says the problem has been going on for several years and is indicative of continuing drought conditions all across the Southwest.