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Water forecast: ‘Worst year ever’

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An abysmal March, on top of an abysmal snowpack season, on top of an abysmal 2011 and 2012, means 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year on the Rio Grande in a century of modern water management.

“It’s the worst year ever,” said Phil King, a professor at New Mexico State University and adviser to southern New Mexico’s largest farm water agency.

King had been preparing his farmers for the worst, but that did not make it any easier to take when the forecast showed that the worst case scenario is now happening.

“It hurts to get slugged in the stomach,” King said, “even if you’re expecting it.”

City users, who have groundwater supplies to fall back on, are not in as dire a situation, but the drought will still pose problems, said John Stomp, chief of operations for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. Shortages in the Rio Grande will force the utility to curtail its use of river water and switch to groundwater pumping during the heat of the summer months, Stomp said Wednesday.

What little snow accumulated over the winter in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado began disappearing in March, as warm, dry weather began eating away at the water supply before it had a chance to melt and make it into the region’s streams and rivers. The result was a substantial reduction in the water supply forecast for the year.

Spring runoff on the Rio Grande at San Marcial, south of Socorro and one of the key central New Mexico measurement points, is forecast to be just 14 percent of the 1981-2010 average, according to preliminary numbers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Combined with the already low levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir, that means less than one-tenth the normal irrigation allotment for farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which provides water for farmers in the lucrative chile and pecan fields of southern New Mexico.

Upstream, the situation is only slightly better. Spring runoff at Otowi, between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, is forecast to be just one-third the long-term average. That flow supplies water for the farmers of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, in the river valley from Cochiti to Socorro County. Those farmers will have larger supplies than their peers to the south, but will still face a shortened irrigation season, with curtailments possible as early as late June.

“This is going to be one of the worst, if not the worst years in memory,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. Gensler and other Conservancy District managers have been meeting with the district’s farmers in recent weeks, urging them to conserve and warning them of the risk of shortfalls.

Time-of-day water restrictions began Monday for the utility’s customers, with outdoor sprinklers prohibited from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., a conservation measure intended to reduce water lost to evaporation.

The runoff forecast was equally grim for the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico, with flows into Santa Rosa Lake just 26 percent of average. The drought on the Pecos led water managers in Carlsbad to issue a demand earlier this week that upstream water users have their pumps shut down, arguing that farms and cities in the Roswell and Artesia areas were taking too much water before it had a chance to reach Carlsbad.

Whether that will force a shutdown is unclear, but an expensive legal battle is expected.

The dismal numbers are the result of three consecutive low-precipitation years in New Mexico, combined with temperatures rising consistent with forecasts as a result of increasing greenhouse gases from fossil fuel use.

Those warmer temperatures have repeatedly eaten into the region’s snowpacks, evaporating water early before it has a chance to make its way to farms and cities downstream.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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