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New Mexico Science

Science, climate, weather and water from a New Mexico perspective

Drought watch, Lower Rio Grande edition: a tough year for the pecan and chile farmers

Rio Grande at Radium Springs, March 2013
Rio Grande at Radium Springs, March 2013
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Phil King, the New Mexico State University professor who advises the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, didn’t sugar coat things for the EBID board yesterday morning (Wed. 3/13/2013). “Still, frankly, pretty dismal,” King told board members in a meeting in Las Cruces as he delivered his monthly water supply report. A full allocation of water for farmers is three feet. This year, King said, they can expect less than 6 inches.

That means groundwater pumping for those who have access to wells, which is an expensive but, for now, manageable proposition for farmers who have access to a deep aquifer, pecan farmer Greg Daviet told me Wednesday afternoon as we walked through his orchard south of Mesilla. “Can you make it through drought? Yes. It requires intensive management,” Daviet told me. Daviet drilled a third well last year, reaching down 400 feet into the aquifer beneath the Mesilla Valley. He has an interesting take on this situation, viewing the regional aquifer as a sort of savings bank. It gets filled during the wet years, with a significant contribution from the Rio Grande water diverted to agriculture soaking into the region’s vast farm fields. In drought times, you draw on that savings bank.

Times are tougher in the Rincon Valley, the narrow strip of land to the north flanking the Rio Grande south of Elephant Butte and Caballo, the two reservoirs currently storing the meager supply of water available this year for farmers. Also called the Hatch Valley, this area is famous for its chiles, but to farmers it’s also known for having a much shallower, less productive aquifer, with lower-quality water. I saw some pumps running as I wandered the valley this week, but the Hatch-area farmers have much less aquifer to work with as a buffer against drought. It’s a much tougher management challenge for them.

The picture above is the Rio Grande at Radium Springs, at the north end of the Mesilla Valley. I had to go out of my way to find any water at all in this stretch of the Rio Grande.

Roughly 90 percent of New Mexico is ranked in “severe” drought or worse, according to today’s edition of the federal Drought Monitor. Lots of New Mexico is in bad shape. Because of the significant farming economy in the Rincon and Mesilla Valleys, this part of the state is an important spot to watch. I’ll have more in the newspaper later this month on their situation.

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