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Snowfall, rain a ‘savior’ for NM farmers

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Water is a precious commodity for farmers and wildlife refuge managers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Just ask Socorro County farmer Chris Lopez.

He put thousands of dollars into an alfalfa crop he planted in the fall of 2017, hoping for enough moisture from the winter snowfall up north that feeds the Rio Grande.

The snowfall and rainfall during the winter of 2017-18 didn’t come – at least not in the amount he needed.

He lost the crop. And the Rio Grande that flows by his family’s 700-acre farm between Socorro and San Antonio ran completely dry. That’s not unusual for late summer, or early fall.

But it happened in March.

“I’d never seen it dry that early,” Lopez said.

That’s a huge contrast to what he and other farmers are seeing this year; the Rio Grande is now overflowing its banks in that same stretch in Socorro County. The Albuquerque District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expecting that part of the river to have its highest water flow since 2005.

Lopez would be the first to admit that he and other farmers along the river “made it out OK” last year despite the fact he lost his alfalfa crop.

Thanks to releases from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District from storage, supplemental wells and a wetter than expected monsoon season, he and other farmers along the Middle Rio Grande survived, even though they missed a few waterings.

“We got a little moisture during the monsoon season, so we didn’t lose a lot of stuff,” said Lopez, who also grows chile and oats on his farm.

Things were a little more dire last year, just a few miles down the dry river at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

The early drying of the Rio Grande threatened the silvery minnow on the refuge, forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to rescue about 15,000 of the tiny fish. The silvery minnow wasn’t the only endangered species threatened by the lack of water. So were the southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo and New Mexico jumping mouse, acting Refuge Manager Bernard Lujan said.

The drying began on the refuge and stretched for 17 miles to the southern limits of Socorro. Lujan said refuge personnel had to be strategic when managing the wetlands. This year is different.

“It’s a 100%  turnaround from 2018. Things were pretty much dismal here on the refuge,” he said in a recent interview. “Last year, the river was dry. It’s now over the banks. The snowpack was a savior for irrigators and crop producers.”

Storage water used up in 2018

The word “savior” is not too strong a word for the amount of snow and rain that has fallen in vital areas upriver over the winter and into spring.

Another year like 2018 would have put farm operations out of business, said Lemitar farmer Glen Duggins, who also serves as chairman of the MRGCD.

“It would have been a disaster,” Duggins said.

The reason? According to John Fleck, the director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, very little water was left in storage.

“They used it all up last year,” Fleck said.

There’s been enough snowpack this year that farmers likely won’t need the stored water, MRGCD chief hydrologist David Gensler said.

“As far as the water system is concerned, we don’t expect any difficulties,” Gensler said. “It’s almost a certainty, there will be enough water to grow crops. We’re looking for the natural flow to meet our needs. We’re not going to have to rely on storage, which is really nice.”

Gensler said the bigger threat right now is flooding from the high runoff.

That probably doesn’t surprise Lopez since the once dry river near his farm is now overflowing its banks.

“It’s starting off really nice right now,” Lopez said. “We’ve got plenty of water. … We have enough to get us through the end of May or June, so it’s wait and see after that.”

Corky Herkenhoff, whose farm is upriver from Lopez’s in San Acacia, said the winter and spring precipitation “has put more water in the irrigation canals” and that enough water is available for crop needs. Farmers in the area receive water that is diverted from the San Acacia dam. The Socorro irrigation canal was running full last week.

Because of that, Lopez’s current alfalfa crop has come through with flying colors. The same can also be said for Duggin’s crop. Both are in the early stages with their chile crops.

“We farmers are always happier with more water,” Duggins said. “My alfalfa crop is looking good. My chile is young, but it’s looking good, too.”

Duggins, a grower of chile, wheat, alfalfa and corn, said the river “is healthy today,” but said farmers and water managers “have to remain on their toes.”

“It’s going really well right now, but farmers really have to be efficient,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to go back to when farmers got all of the water they wanted out of the canals.”

Herkenhoff said farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley are used to having to ration their water.

And Duggins said they employ special techniques such as using a layer of soil as a mulch to keep the soil underneath moist to help crops like chile grow.

As things stand right now, Fleck said, eight times as much water is flowing in the Rio Grande in the Albuquerque area compared with last year. In San Acacia, there’s 50 times as much.

At its peak last year, Gensler said, water flowed at 1,500 cubic feet per second in the Albuquerque area, “but that was probably after a thunderstorm.” Most of the time it was under 500 cfs.

This year, the flow on May 1 was about 4,300.

The average flow in San Acacia last year was about 80 cfs, and dropped as low as 50. The flow on May 1 this year was 3,500.

“Flows go by that we can’t use,” Herkenhoff said. “Most of that water has to go to Texas.”

“I hope we continue to get the moisture, so we can get Elephant Butte back up, and store a little more up north,” Lopez said.

Down river, Elephant Butte Reservoir is running about 15% capacity, Fleck said. The reservoir was down as low as 3% capacity last year.

“If it gets up to 20%, that will allow a little more flexibility with the compact with Texas,” Fleck said.

The amount of water available at Elephant Butte affects farmers both north and south of the reservoir, he said.

Under the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, water can’t be stored at reservoirs such as Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu up north built after 1929 if water capacity drops below 400,000 acre feet at Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoir.

“We’re getting close to 400,000 acre feet now,” Duggins said. “Pretty soon, we’ll be able to start storing water up north.”

And while farmers north of Elephant Butte may not need to use water from storage this year, those south of the reservoir are more dependent on water releases.

Federal managers planned to begin releasing water from Elephant Butte Reservoir on May 3 to prepare for the season.

Fleck said farmers south of Elephant Butte in such places as Hatch Valley and Doña Ana County have to pump groundwater when releases aren’t available from Elephant Butte.

“That’s very expensive,” Fleck said.

And the practice puts a strain on the aquifer.

Fleck said farm operations south of Elephant Butte are more business operations compared to the Middle Rio Grande, where he said farms were “more diverse in nature.” Mesilla Valley, for instance, is one of the biggest producers of pecans in the world.

And while water seems to be abundant right now along the Rio Grande, farmers, water managers and wildlife refuge managers take nothing for granted.

There is still a good chance the Rio Grande will run dry for stretches later this year.

“As the flows cease up north, it’s going to purge things,” Lujan said. “It’s going to slow down … But it’s still pretty early to predict when the river will dry up.”

Gensler said that’s been the case with the Rio Grande for about 500 years.

“Drying of the Rio Grande is natural,” Gensler said. “It doesn’t keep flowing without irrigation releases. Cottonwood trees use the water. Farmers use the water for their crops. Hot summer days with 0% to 10% humidity dry up all of the water.”

He said the river will probably “dry up in places where we normally expect it to dry up, but it will still be manageable.”

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