Gary Esslinger’s chosen profession, delivering irrigation water to southern New Mexico farmers, looks like some sort of cruel joke these days.
The latest punch line came this week in the form the federal government’s April Rio Grande runoff forecast, which calls for just 29 percent of normal spring and summer runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir.
That’s the reservoir that supplies water to farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys of southern New Mexico. Esslinger, the district’s general manager, faces the unhappy task of going back to his farmers next week and telling them to expect even less than the meager allotment they had been counting on.
“The business that I’m in, of supplying surface water, is kinda like going out of business,” Esslinger said Thursday.
This week’s preliminary forecast, after a hot, dry March, showed a drop from expectations just a month ago that New Mexico State University hydrologist Phil King called “pretty catastrophic.”
“Things in one month basically just went away,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Rio Grande basin manager for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
Low elevation snow is largely gone, and much of what has already melted has soaked into soil left bone dry from last year’s drought, rather than flowing into New Mexico’s rivers, King said Thursday. The latest weekly federal Drought Monitor showed an expansion of dry conditions, with the entire state ranging from “abnormally dry” in the northwest to “exceptional drought” in the southeast.
The federal forecast calls for 151,000 acre feet of water flowing into Elephant Butte between now and the end of July, which is the main snowmelt runoff season. That is 29 percent of the 1971-2000 average, which federal managers define as their long term “normal” for water management planning purposes.
Combined with what little water is left in Elephant Butte from last year, that could translate to enough water to irrigate each acre in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District 6 inches deep, Esslinger said, compared with an average allocation of three feet.
The district’s farmers will have to depend on their groundwater pumps to make up the difference, which drives up their cost of operations, Esslinger said. With similar drought conditions last year, the aquifers in the area dropped an average of 3 to 5 feet because of pumping, he said.
The closest thing to a bright spot was this week’s storm, but as bright spots go, it was relatively dim.
“This latest snowstorm helped a little bit,” said Tom Thorpe, spokesman for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, “but not a lot.”
The result is an irrigation season for Rio Grande farmers that looks in many ways like a repeat of last year – enough water in storage reservoirs in northern New Mexico for a decent irrigation season for farmers between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte, but another bad year to the south.
Rio Grande valley farmers, who depend on irrigation water from the river, suffer the biggest problems when flows drop during drought. New Mexico’s cities generally use groundwater for some or all of their supplies, and those that use river water have groundwater to fall back on.
Santa Fe, for example, may have to reduce the amount of water available for environmental flows in the Santa Fe River this year, said Rick Carpenter, with the city’s Water Resources Division. Snowpack in Santa Fe’s Sangre de Cristo watershed is just 60 percent of normal, Carpenter said, but the city also has groundwater wells and water imported from the San Juan River Basin.
The drought could force Albuquerque to use less river water and pump groundwater instead in the late summer or early fall, but users shouldn’t notice the difference, according to John Stomp, chief operating officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal