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Reserves of irrigation water likely to run out by week’s end

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

For the first time in several years, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is about to run out of water it stores for irrigating farmlands.

David Gensler, water operations manager for the district, said he anticipates the last drops of irrigation water stored in Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs in northern New Mexico will be used up by the end of this week. The scheduled end of irrigation season is Oct. 31.

“It could be Friday or Saturday. Maybe we’ll coast into Monday, but it’s coming up fast,” he said.

After that, the amount of water the district is able to deliver to the 60,000 acres of cropland it serves in the Middle Rio Grande Valley will depend on rain and how much or how little water is being used upstream on the Rio Chama in Colorado and northern New Mexico.

“Running out of stored water isn’t the end of the irrigation season,” Gensler said. “We’ve been in this position in the past, and everyone pulls together to make the most of whatever natural flow is available.”

Gensler said the district also ran short of water in 2013 and 2014. He said in one of those years, storage water was depleted by Sept. 15 and in the other year, the district did a voluntary stoppage after Labor Day to conserve some water.

“The difference this year is that the natural flow is so low,” Gensler said. “We just hope there will be something to work with.”

John Stomp, chief operating officer of the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, said a proposal up for approval at Wednesday’s meeting of the authority’s governing board would lease up to 20,000 acre-feet of the authority’s San Juan-Chama water, stored at Abiquiu, to the Bureau of Reclamation for release into the Rio Grande. An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre to a depth of one foot.

“The key issue is to keep the Albuquerque stretch of the Rio Grande from going dry,” Stomp said. “That would help endangered species (such as the silvery minnow) and increase everyone’s supply.”

The conservancy district had 130,000 acre-feet of water in storage at the start of the irrigation season on March 1. But an especially puny snowpack in the mountains, resulting in a next-to-nothing spring runoff, and a severe lack of precipitation between October and July combined to put an exceptional strain on stored waters.

Usually, the conservancy district does not tap into reservoir waters until the summer and early fall. But this year, Gensler said the district was forced to start pulling water out of the reservoirs on about April 29.

“Last year, we released our first water about Aug. 15,” he said.

Gensler said rains since the monsoon season kicked off in July have helped to some degree, but those rains have been spotty and, combined with continuing high temperatures, made the use of the dwindling supply of stored water necessary.

“It’s always hard for farmers when they don’t have the water when they need it,” he said. “Maybe corn kernels will not fill out as full this year as they would with one more irrigation, but they will get a harvest and we are grateful for that. The biggest impact will be for farmers planting (winter crops and perennials such as alfalfa) in the fall. We can’t guarantee them water.”

To make things even more challenging, the combined waters in Elephant Butte Reservoir, five miles north of Truth or Consequences, and Caballo Reservoir, 16 miles south of TorC, dropped to less than 400,000 acre-feet in late May. That triggered Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, which governs the distribution of water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

According to Article VII, when the water levels at Elephant Butte and Caballo dip below 400,000 acre-feet, the storage of additional waters in upstream reservoirs is prohibited. That means the conservancy district has not been able to replenish water stored in Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs since Article VII went into effect.

The situation also means the conservancy district will be delivering what water there is available to the 8,847 acres of land belonging to the six middle Rio Grande Pueblos before it sends water to other irrigators. The pueblos’ “Prior and Paramount” water rights are protected by a 1928 act of Congress.

Gensler said the conservancy district has about 6,000 acre-feet of water set aside to help meet its responsibility to the pueblos.

And, then, there’s next year.

“At the moment, we are looking at starting with nothing (in storage),” Gensler said. “But you never know what will happen over the winter. We need a good snowpack. We got to have something to work with.”