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Valencia County farmer Horacio Romero grows alfalfa and sudan grass in Tomé. He usually plants alfalfa in mid-September, then counts on two quick irrigation deliveries to sustain the new crops.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board voted Monday to cut short this year’s irrigation season on Oct. 5. The decision could affect fall planting for farmers like Romero.
“We know the water’s tight, and they’ve done what they can,” he said. “But water is life. If you cut the season 30 days, 60 days shorter, it’s going to have a negative effect statewide, not just in the valley here.”
A short season means an extra month of water deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir, as the district chips away at a debt to downstream users.
Colorado and Texas gave New Mexico permission in July to use more than 11 billion gallons of water stored in El Vado Reservoir under the Rio Grande Compact.
That stretched the irrigation season into September, said water operations manager David Gensler.
“We had one of the lowest spring runoffs on record, we had almost no summer rains and, to top that off, we had week after week of 100-degree temperatures,” Gensler said. “It’s really been a brutal year.”
Now, the storage water is gone and the district faces a 100,000 acre-foot water debt to Texas.
That debt may restrict the water stored in reservoirs or delivered to farmers next year.
“We either hurt now or we hurt next irrigation season, but we have to do something,” said board member Valerie Moore. “We have to try to pay back some of that deficit water, so we can store.”
Low natural river flows would have meant little water, even with a longer season.
About 20 farmers gathered at the district office Monday to protest the change and what they say is preferential treatment for bigger farmers.
Nick Cordova, who grows alfalfa, wheat and oats, said some of the district’s 40 irrigation systems operators, or “ditchriders,” repeatedly place farmers with more land at the top of the list for water deliveries.
“We have to stand idly by as the big farmers take precedence over us, and watch our crops dry up while (theirs) get planted and harvested,” Cordova said. “If they had a ditchrider who was actually a farmer, they’d see that pushing a button to get water and the reality of it is something else.”
Several board members said the district should work toward a more transparent scheduling system.
“We don’t care if you have one acre or you have 800 acres, you’re supposed to be equal,” Moore said, “but the complaints that we get sometimes, it just doesn’t seem like that’s happening.”
The board will decide in January 2021 whether to delay the season’s start until April 1.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.