Once again, a summer of drought looms on horizon

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Recent snow and rain have been a blessing for a parched state with a puny snowpack, but it might be too little, too late – like feeding a cheeseburger to a starving man.

“The precipitation helped everywhere, in some places more than others,” said Royce Fontenot, senior hydrologist with the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service. “But people should not be lulled into thinking we had a good rain so the drought is over. It’s like giving a cheeseburger to someone who is malnourished. It may fill the belly, give a little burst of energy. But how much is it going to help in the long run?”

The latest New Mexico drought map, released on Thursday, shows that about 80 percent of the state is in severe drought and more than 5 percent, mostly in the north-central and extreme northwest, is in extreme drought.

Recent snow has helped make a dismal snowpack situation a little better. And there’s a chance for more snow and rain over the next week.

Bob Bowman looks for his golf ball amid snow flurries after teeing off at Albuquerque's Los Altos Golf Course on Thursday morning
Bob Bowman looks for his golf ball amid snow flurries after teeing off at Albuquerque’s Los Altos Golf Course on Thursday morning. The Albuquerque area and other parts of the state have received some much-needed rain and snow over the past week, and more may be on the way in the next seven days. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Over the next seven days, we’ll see a more active pattern,” Fontenot said. “We have a system moving through this weekend, mainly in the northern mountains, and another system about the middle of next week. We are building some snowpack, but it is running too little too late.”

He said that since October, precipitation levels have been well below normal in the state, particularly in the northern mountains and on the eastern plains.

“And we are running out of time,” Fontenot said. “That’s the challenge as we look ahead. How much more snow will we get before we stop getting snow?”

He said the snow season begins to peak in the Gila and Sacramento mountains down south in a couple of weeks and in the northern mountains from late March into the middle of April.

“Then things start warming up, and we get our melt-off.”

In response to the exceptionally dry winter, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District started diverting water for irrigation in Socorro and Valencia counties this week, 10 days earlier than the normal beginning date of March 1. And the state office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency is preparing to make available emergency funds to help ranchers buy forage for their livestock if that becomes necessary.

Anthony Chavez, state agricultural program specialist with the Farm Services Agency, said the Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Forage Program makes funds available to help ranchers buy feed for their cattle once a county has been in severe drought for eight consecutive weeks. For some northern counties, he said, that would occur in the third week of March if severe drought conditions persist.

“We are looking at that because the drought is going to affect a lot of ranchers,” Chavez said. “They have to make decisions based on what forage they have on the ground, and they may look at reducing herds if there is not enough moisture in the ground to grow grass. All we are doing is trying to supplement them.”

The MRGCD provides water for 70,000 acres of cropland in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. David Gensler, the conservancy district’s water operations manager, said that often irrigators don’t need the water until mid-April, but it’s different this year.

“We are turning up the wick to deliver water in early March,” he said.

Gensler said farmers in Socorro County may already be taking deliveries of water and the district will start diverting water for the Albuquerque District on March 1 and the Cochiti District a week later.

Last year, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which provides water for farmers in southern New Mexico, delivered 24 acre-inches of water to its irrigators. An acre-inch is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre to the depth of 1 inch. Twenty-four acre inches was the most water the district had delivered in at least eight years. But this year, it likely will not make half of that.

“Right now, our allotment is 8 inches,” said Phil King, New Mexico State University civil engineering professor and water adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. “We might get to 10, but I don’t think we will get to 12.”

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