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Irrigation in northern and central New Mexico operates on a “run of the river” system. When the Rio Grande is flowing high, there is ample supply for regional farmers. But the river is on life support this year.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is considering shortening this year’s irrigation season and delaying the 2021 season to avoid a massive water debt to southern New Mexico and Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
New Mexico received permission from Texas and Colorado last month to use up to 36,000 acre-feet, or more than 11 billion gallons, of water stored in El Vado Reservoir.
Normally, that water would be delivered to Elephant Butte Reservoir after the irrigation season to satisfy New Mexico’s water debt. Using the water now means the district faces a 100,000 acre-foot water debt to downstream users.
“I think it is really in our best interest to get this taken care of as quickly as possible,” said district water operations manager David Gensler. “As our debt gets larger and larger, we’re going to be required to keep larger and larger volumes stored in El Vado, so we essentially give up our storage space for normal operations.”
Gensler recommended that the board end the irrigation season on Oct. 1, and start next year’s season on April 1. That would allow for two extra months of water deliveries to Elephant Butte.
Earl Gleason, an 83-year-old farmer who grows grass hay on 30 acres in Belen, said this is one of the worst water years he’s ever seen.
“Back in July, the ditch riders were telling me that it might be 40 days in between watering,” Gleason said. “But I’ve had crops die in 20 days without water. We have a sick river sucking up more water than ever.”
Faced with a dwindling water supply, Gleason signed up for an MRGCD program that pays farmers to not water in August, September and October. He has scrapped plans to plant alfalfa this fall.
A short irrigation season could mean more difficult choices for farmers. But MRGCD board member Stephanie Russo Baca said the change could prevent the district from having to shut systems off and on next year.
Rio Grande flows remain low even with the water from El Vado. On Wednesday, flows in Albuquerque hovered just above 100 cubic feet per second. Last year at this time, flows were about 1,000 cubic feet per second. In mid-August 2018, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque was flowing at about 450 cfs.
Under the compact, New Mexico’s water debt can grow as large as 200,000 acre-feet, after which the district would face severe restrictions.
“We definitely don’t want to get to that point, and we’re starting to go there pretty quickly,” Gensler said.
The MRGCD board will decide whether to alter the irrigation season at the Sept. 14 meeting.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.