Now that the irrigation season has ended for farmers along the middle Rio Grande, the last releases of Colorado River water from the San Juan-Chama project are being routed to certain river stretches through irrigation canals.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is attempting to deliver as much water as possible to Elephant Butte Reservoir by not “wasting” water on river stretches that are already dry, said water operations manager David Gensler.
“The only good thing about a year like this is while we don’t have much water, we don’t owe much either,” Gensler said. “Normally when we shut down at the end of the season, all the water goes down the river. Now the water is going down through our canals and drains, so we’re not putting it out there in a dry river where it can evaporate.”
The district board voted to end the irrigation season on Oct. 5, nearly a month early. The decision followed an emergency release of water from El Vado Reservoir – water that otherwise would have been delivered to Elephant Butte this fall.
The Office of the State Engineer estimates the district could begin next year with a 100,000 acre-foot water debt to downstream users on the Rio Grande.
Emergency releases have kept the Rio Grande from going dry in Albuquerque, but flows are still well-below average.
The district will now begin off-season repairs to irrigation infrastructure. Chief operating officer Jason Casuga said projects will be scaled back to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19 among work crews.
“You can imagine when these (workers) are doing manual labor, with rebar or concrete, their face sweats,” Casuga said. “Their mask gets wet, now they’re breathing through wet masks, so they take their masks off and they’re breathing hard. Sometimes they’re right up on each other working a piece of pipe, standing there face to face.”
The district will focus on repairs to the Peralta main canal and riverside drain in Valencia County, as well as gates and ditches near Sandia and Isleta pueblos.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.