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Runoff Forecast Dismal

Dry Rio Grande river bed (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
Dry Rio Grande river bed (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Journal)
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Farmers who depend on the state’s rivers for their irrigation water are preparing for the worst after new forecast numbers call for abysmal runoff for a third year in a row.

“The bottom line is, that sucks,” said Phil King, a New Mexico State University professor who serves as an adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, after seeing the latest forecast for runoff headed his way.

The agency provides water for farmers in Doña Ana County, New Mexico’s largest agricultural producer.

While there is still uncertainty about how wet or dry the next few months will be, the mostly likely runoff, if we get normal precipitation through spring, is 39 percent of the long-term average flowing into Elephant Butte Reservoir, according to forecasters at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In a normal year, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District begins running that water through its system as early as late February, with an irrigation season that runs through October. This year, farmers shouldn’t expect to see any irrigation water until the first of June, and the district could run out by the end of July, King said Wednesday.

Farmers who grow pecans and chile in the valley will have to depend on well water to keep their crops alive, which is getting increasingly expensive as drought drops water tables, driving up pumping costs.

The problems on the lower Rio Grande have already triggered a lawsuit by the state of Texas over water allocation, and the issue is attracting attention in the New Mexico legislative session currently under way. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, introduced a bill Tuesday that would appropriate $120 million to try to deal with the region’s water problems, either by importing water, improving irrigation efficiency or buying up and retiring water rights.

Farmers on the Pecos River face equally grim prospects, said Dudley Jones, manager of the Carlsbad Irrigation District. The best case scenario is that farmers will get close to a third of their normal allocation, and the worst case would be barely enough water to irrigate at all, Jones said.

The most likely flow on the Pecos River is 36 percent of average into Santa Rosa Lake, just north of the town of Santa Rosa in eastern New Mexico.

The reason for the problem is a paltry snowpack building up in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Snow that builds up in the winter provides summer water as it melts off and flows through New Mexico rivers.

Snowpack in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado watersheds ranges from 50 to 75 percent of normal, but water losses because of dry conditions between the mountains and the river valleys means the expected river flows are significantly lower.

Federal snow surveyor Wayne Sleep said while recent storms have brought some higher elevation snow, they have been too few and far between to catch up after four dry months.

The one relative bright spot in the state’s water outlook is the San Juan Mountain headwaters, which feed the San Juan-Chama Project. That project’s dams and tunnels shuttle water into the Chama River for downstream use by Albuquerque, Santa Fe and other water users in the Rio Grande Valley.

Project managers had been talking about the first water curtailment in the project’s history. But the recent snows appear to have been enough to provide a full allocation for the project’s users, according to Mary Carlson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

No final decision has been made on San Juan-Chama Project allocations, and managers of the various water projects involved are still discussing the question of whether they should take a smaller allotment this year and hold some water in reserve as a hedge against the risk of a dry 2014.
— This article appeared on page A3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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