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Where Drought Hits N.M. the Hardest


“The potential exists out there for a zero-release year.”

That’s Phil King, a water resources professor at New Mexico State University and adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The district provides water released from Elephant Butte Reservoir to farmers in Doña Ana County. Dollar for dollar, Doña Ana is the state’s most agriculturally productive county. But in the past couple of years, there hasn’t been much water to provide.

King, in a telephone conversation last week, was quick to explain why “zero release” is very much a worst-case scenario. But the fact that people like him are even entertaining the possibility illustrates the grave nature of New Mexico’s current water supply situation.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, 2011-12 was the warmest and driest two-year stretch since record-keeping began in New Mexico in the late 1800s. For sheer stubborn persistence, the drought of the 1950s was worse. But two dry years with a forecast for a third is bad news for the state’s water managers and the people who depend on them.

Some of the worst problems involve rangeland, ecosystems and the risk of fire. We’ll deal with those here another day. For now, let’s take a quick tour of what looks to me like the four most challenging water supply trouble spots to watch around New Mexico as we enter what we hope we won’t have to end up calling The Great Drought of 2013.

Lower Pecos

The Pecos, flowing out of the heel of the Sangre de Cristos, carries melting snow to farms and communities along New Mexico’s eastern plains, is a small river to begin with. Recently, it has been a lot smaller.

“We’re basically down to mud puddles over there for reservoirs,” said Wayne Sleep, who monitors winter snowpack and spring runoff for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Right now, in fact, the Pecos is so small that the state of New Mexico is engaged in one of those only-in-a-desert projects in which we’ve got fields of pumps sucking water out of the ground to dump into the river’s bed, trying to make it flow. The goal is to ensure there’s enough water in the Pecos to meet the needs of Carlsbad-area farmers while also meeting New Mexico’s legal obligation to deliver some Pecos flow to Texas.

This has not been going well.

At a meeting in Santa Fe on Jan. 16, rancher Cheryl Griffith complained to members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission that groundwater pumping to meet the river’s needs has caused other area water users’ wells to drop.

Meanwhile, Carlsbad irrigators are complaining about the pumping program’s failure to deliver enough water for their crops. All this could come to a head in the form of a need for a “call” on the river – a state action to force some water users, with lower priority rights, to shut down operations entirely this year to conserve water. The whole point of the pumping program, and related actions by the state over the past decade in which state taxpayers spent nearly $100 million to try to deal with shortfalls on the lower Pecos, was to avoid a “call.”

“Everyone is very motivated to try to find an alternative resolution to that issue,” Estevan López, executive director of the Interstate Stream Commission, told legislators Thursday.

Watch for the Pecos to be New Mexico’s biggest water management trouble spot this spring.

Lower Rio Grande

South of Elephant Butte Reservoir, farmers are preparing for another very bad year. In recent years, many have made up for shortfalls by pumping groundwater, but King noted last week that the longer the drought runs, the harder that gets, as groundwater levels drop.

The real drought action on the Lower Rio Grande seems to have come in the form of a lawsuit filed earlier this month by Texas against the state of New Mexico, charging that all the groundwater pumping in the valleys south of Elephant Butte is reducing flows in the Rio Grande, depriving water to which Texas is legally entitled.

Watch for the Texas suit to loom over lower Rio Grande water management decision-making this year.

San Juan-Chama

Officials have begun preparing for a possible shortage in this year’s San Juan-Chama project water allocations. It would be the first in the 40-year history of the project, which carries water beneath the Continental Divide in a series of tunnels, moving Colorado River Basin water into the Chama and Rio Grande drainages for use over here. Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which serves middle Rio Grande Valley farmers, are the biggest users.

Water officials are contemplating setting a starting benchmark of 80 percent allocation for the San Juan-Chama water users, with the possibility of raising the allocation depending on how much snow there is. Some of the contractors seem to be holding out for a full allocation, while others would like to take less water this year to leave a hedge of stored water for next year.

Albuquerque has a surplus of water it has faithfully squirreled away in Abiquiu Reservoir, so it should be OK this year, but farmers might see a slightly shortened irrigation season.

Endangered species

With most of New Mexico’s upstream reservoirs dry and a forecast for low runoff on the Rio Grande in 2013, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers are scrambling to try to figure out how to keep some water in the Rio Grande itself to meet legal mandates to protect the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. The possibility of San Juan-Chama project shortages complicates this, because in recent years that’s where a lot of the minnow water came from.

In recent public meetings, the agencies have been at loggerheads about how to proceed. Watch for this issue to dominate water managers’ discussion this spring as they try to figure out how to meet everyone else’s water management needs without running afoul of federal environmental law.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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