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Drought worsens for chile farmers

The Rio Grande at Hatch has been completely dry since last summer, and the drought conditions are threatening the valley’s chile farms.(John Fleck/Journal)
The Rio Grande at Hatch has been completely dry since last summer, and the drought conditions are threatening the valley’s chile farms.(John Fleck/Journal)
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HATCH — Drought conditions have gone “from bad to worse to worst,” southern New Mexico’s chile farmers were told Monday as they braced for what looks like the worst irrigation season on record in southern New Mexico.

“We’re really hurting,” said Jerry Franzoy, a member of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s board of directors and a third-generation chile farmer in the state’s famed Hatch Valley.

Valley farmers grow a range of crops, including onions, corn and wheat. But the valley’s fame comes from its chile.

Some 35 area farmers gathered Monday morning at the Hatch Community Center for the annual irrigation district growers meeting. The key message: In the third consecutive year of extreme drought, deliveries of Rio Grande water for their crops will be the lowest in nearly a century of irrigation district operations.

“This is a pretty dismal prospect,” said Phil King, hydrologist for the irrigation district.

Spring runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir, the source of the farmers’ water, could be as low as 5 percent of average, King said. The resulting available water supply is the lowest since Elephant Butte operations began in 1916, according to King.

“This is new territory for all of us,” he told the farmers.

The Hatch farmers are not alone. Ninety-seven percent of New Mexico was classified as being in “severe drought” or worse in the most recent weekly federal Drought Monitor. Communities in northeast New Mexico have been running short of water, while on the Pecos River a legal battle has broken out between two groups of farmers over who is entitled to scarce water.

Across New Mexico, the past three years have been the warmest in more than a century of record-keeping and the driest since the 1950s.

Running from Caballo Reservoir to Leasburg Dam in southern New Mexico, the Hatch Valley, also known as the Rincon Valley, is a strip of green amid the desert. The water normally comes from the Rio Grande Project, a federal irrigation system that delivers water stored at Elephant Butte Reservoir to farmers through the Rio Grande and a network of canals crisscrossing the valley.

The valley is the heart of a farming region that grew $46 million worth of chile in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With Elephant Butte nearly empty, Hatch Valley farmers are forced to pump groundwater instead. Farmers say they’ll still be able to coax a crop this year doing that, but as the drought lengthens it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain their farms that way because of the groundwater’s high salt content — the result both of naturally occurring salts in the soil and minerals leached into the groundwater by years of irrigation.

“That’s poison,” said Erek Fuchs, groundwater resources manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

“Our salt is killing us here in the Hatch Valley,” Franzoy said.

Elephant Butte is not completely empty, and the irrigation district is planning a small release of river water, likely beginning June 1 and lasting a month or more. That compares to a normal irrigation season with river water flowing down the Rio Grande’s main channel and out into EBID canals for more than six months.

And with a riverbed and canals that have been dry for nearly a year, losses trying to get the water to the farmers will be significant as some of the water simply soaks into the dry earth, King said.

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