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Water flowing to valley farms, but for how long?

Larry Pacheco and his grandson Cole Foster walk along an irrigation ditch in Albuquerque's North Valley. The dry ditches will begin filling with water in coming weeks, but drought leaves questions about how much water and for how long.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Larry Pacheco and his grandson Cole Foster walk along an irrigation ditch in Albuquerque's North Valley. The dry ditches will begin filling with water in coming weeks, but drought leaves questions about how much water and for how long.(Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
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The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began diverting water into its irrigation ditches this week amid uncertainty over how much water valley farmers will get, and for how long.

Farmers along the strip of river between Cochiti and Elephant Butte Reservoir, who use Rio Grande water to irrigate their corn and alfalfa, could see shortened irrigation seasons in 2013 as the region enters its third consecutive year of drought, said David Gensler, the irrigation district’s water manager.

Diversions started Wednesday at the agency’s Isleta diversion dam, as the district’s workers slowly begin spreading water through the network of irrigation ditches that spiderweb across the valley floor.

The Angosturo Diversion Dam north of Bernalillo, which captures the water that flows through Albuquerque’s valley neighborhoods, will likely be opened up Monday, according to Gensler.

Snowpack from a dry winter ranges from 70 to 80 percent of average for March 1 in the watersheds that feed the Rio Grande. But runoff forecasts are running well below that number. The February forecast calls for just 53 percent of average flow on the Rio Grande.

The reason, Gensler said, is that watersheds, parched by three dry winters, are expected to soak up a substantial amount of spring runoff before it ever reaches the rivers.

“Soil moisture is probably reaching record lows up in the watersheds,” Gensler said.

In 2012, the conservancy district had to curtail irrigation supplies in August as it ran out of water. This year, the agency has substantially less water in storage behind upstream dams than last year at this time, Gensler said.

The conservancy district’s problem is one among many. The federal Drought Monitor on Thursday categorized 90 percent of the state as being in “severe drought” or worse. Irrigation water shortfalls are expected in every major river basin in the state, with especially severe problems in Doña Ana County on the Texas-New Mexico border and in the Carlsbad area.

In addition to the problem of drought, the 2013 irrigation season begins amid legal uncertainty about how much water will be required under federal law to meet the needs of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. The current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service minnow water management plan, originally developed in 2003, expired Thursday.

With negotiations under way among the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, the old rules, which require continuous river flows through Albuquerque for the fish, will remain in effect until new ones are completed, according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom Buckley.

Based on preliminary runoff forecasts, state and federal water managers have expressed concerns about whether there will be sufficient water available this year to meet the requirements.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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