Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Irrigation districts along the Rio Grande are reeling from a hot and dry summer, and bracing for another year of little surface water supply.
New Mexico must deliver a certain amount of river water each year to Elephant Butte Reservoir under the Rio Grande Compact between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
To work toward meeting those obligations, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District routed river water through district canals in October.
The strategy aimed to deliver as much water to Elephant Butte as possible this year so the district would have fewer restrictions for El Vado Reservoir storage next irrigation season, said Mike Hamman, district CEO and chief engineer.
“The efficiency side of it is an argument,” he said, “As to whether it’s more efficient to go directly in the river in October when we still have high (evaporation) rates and you have to wet up a complete (river) channel, versus gradually edging into it as natural conditions work in the direction of a fully efficient delivery system.”
Jennifer Faler, Albuquerque area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said Reclamation does not think that routing water through MRGCD infrastructure is the most efficient way to deliver to Elephant Butte.
“We think water should be going down the (river) channel,” she said.
Faler said that the reroute circumvents natural processes, and interferes with river realignment projects and the overall health of the Rio Grande.
In July, Rio Grande Compact commissioners from Colorado and Texas granted New Mexico’s request for an emergency use of about 11 billion gallons of water from El Vado Reservoir.
That water kept the Rio Grande from going completely dry through Albuquerque this summer.
But the Interstate Stream Commission estimates that the decision means New Mexico could owe as much as 32 billion gallons under the compact at the end of 2020.
The emergency use for the Middle Rio Grande amid a statewide drought will also affect farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas next year.
Elephant Butte Reservoir is at a mere 4% of capacity, said Phil King, water resources consultant for Elephant Butte Irrigation District. Farmers in southern New Mexico will likely need to rely on groundwater wells instead of typical irrigation allotments.
“Unless conditions improve in the late fall and winter,” King said, “we can expect 2021 to be a critically low water supply year for the Rio Grande Project, perhaps the worst in project history.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.