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New Mexico Science

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

Rain a mixed blessing for N.M. farmers

The Rio Grande was more sand bed than river on Albuquerque’s north side Friday. Barring unusually heavy summer rains, the river through Albuquerque is headed to its lowest levels since the 1980s. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
The Rio Grande was more sand bed than river on Albuquerque’s north side Friday. Barring unusually heavy summer rains, the river through Albuquerque is headed to its lowest levels since the 1980s. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)
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With irrigation storage gone, farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley of north-central New Mexico are hoping for rain. So far, July has not disappointed.

But farther south, showing that no good deed goes unpunished, thunderstorms have washed wildfire ash into the upper end of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District system, risking clogs for farmers who have installed drip irrigation to conserve water during the drought.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which serves farmers from Cochiti to Socorro County, released the last of its irrigation water from storage in El Vado Reservoir at midday June 30. With that water gone, the only water in the Rio Grande downstream from Cochiti Dam is federal water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for the Rio Grande silvery minnow and water earmarked for Pueblo irrigators, who have earlier and higher-priority water rights.

“We are now up to 36 months of consecutive drought. It’s the driest three-year period on record for much of New Mexico,” Bureau of Reclamation Albuquerque area manager Mike Hamman said in a statement Wednesday. “Reclamation is focused on working closely with the Pueblos and MRGCD to ensure that the water in the river is reaching its intended destinations.”

The conservancy district notified farmers Tuesday that it was cutting off deliveries to non-Indian farmers after July 4.

The only way that will change, according to the district’s announcement to its farmers, is if enough rain falls to raise river flows to allow irrigation with natural flows. While the week of afternoon and evening storms has helped slow the river’s decline, there has not yet been enough water for the district to resume deliveries to non-Indian farmers.

While some middle valley farmers have supplemental groundwater pumps to help them through the drought, most depend on river water from the conservancy district, said Chris Sichler, a Socorro County farmer and member of the conservancy district’s board.

Alfalfa farmers can get by on limited irrigation, but farmers without wells who planted chile or corn will have problems without rain, Sichler said Friday.

“I guess they’re going to take a gamble and hope it rains,” Sichler said.

So far, the rain has been playing along, with storms somewhere over the valley ever day since the last weekend in June. Forecasters say this is an unusual pattern for the summer monsoon season, with moisture moving from north to south. But on Wednesday, readings at the Albuquerque airport passed the National Weather Service’s unofficial criteria for monsoon onset. That was the third consecutive day of dewpoints above 47 degrees, a measure that means the air is moist enough for afternoon thunderstorms to develop.

The rain has slowed but not reversed a decline in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque that began Tuesday as irrigation supplies ran out.

Downstream, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District continues to release the last of its irrigation water from Elephant Butte Reservoir. That is currently expected to end Saturday, according to Phil King, water management consultant to the irrigation district.

Releases of Elephant Butte water for New Mexico and Texas farmers and cities since June 1 has drained Elephant Butte Reservoir to its lowest levels since the summer of 1972, according to Bureau of Reclamation records. The nearly depleted reservoir currently stands at 3 percent of its total capacity.

The last time the reservoir was full was 1995. According to King, refilling it would take a single year with four to five times the region’s normal snowpack (“not happening,” King said), or five consecutive years of 50 percent above average snowpack (“also pretty unlikely right now,” King added).

The summer rains have been a mixed blessing for southern New Mexico farmers. Flash floods from the area burned by the Silver Fire in the Gila National Forest washed ash into the Rio Grande. Water managers issued a warning to downstream water users because of the risk the ash could clog farmers’ drip irrigation systems and municipal treatment plants, King said.

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