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NM farmers brace for meager water

National forecasters and climate experts warned Thursday that already low soil moisture levels will keep more of the spring runoff from reaching streams, rivers and reservoirs. Shown here is the Rio Grande in September. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press)

The irrigation canals are all but dry as farmers along the Rio Grande set in for winter, holding out hope that the El Niño weather system will develop and save them from what could otherwise be another dry start to the next growing season.

The irrigation district that serves farmers in southern New Mexico has issued a warning that next year’s allotment could be as little as a few inches of water.

Elephant Butte, the largest reservoir in the state, bottomed out at just 3 percent of capacity at the end of September. While there has been a slight uptick since then, that marked the lowest level since the early 1970s.

It will likely be late spring before the Elephant Butte Irrigation District begins to release water to farmers in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys – home to countless pecan orchards and crops of chile and onions.

“It’s bleak,” said Phil King, water resources specialist for the district.

National climate experts have been watching and waiting, but El Niño continues to tease, leaving New Mexico and the rest of the Southwest to hang on longer until the weather pattern develops and brings more moisture to the drought-stricken region.

King is not optimistic about the development of a wetter-than-average weather pattern for southern New Mexico. The region has endured 16 years of drought and it looks as if 2019 will continue to bring further challenges with low water supplies, he said.

The federal drought map released Thursday shows the situation has improved in a small portion of northern New Mexico and along the Rio Grande corridor. But the Four Corners region and the southern Colorado mountains that feed the river are still dealing with extreme to exceptional drought.

The Rio Grande marked several record-low flows this year, prompting federal officials to partner with the largest water utility authority in the state and others to keep the river flowing at least through the Albuquerque stretch.

Another concern heading into the start of winter is warm temperatures, which could affect the amount and longevity of the region’s snowpack.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque report that Albuquerque is tied for the seventh-warmest year on record and New Mexico as a whole is third-warmest on record for the first 11 months of the year.

Predictions include a higher probability that temperatures could be higher than normal through February.