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Pumping into Pecos River aims to offset drought losses

New Mexico state water regulators began pumping water this month from state reservoirs into the Pecos River to account for losses during a devastating drought.

The move was meant to augment water supplies for water users and rights holders along the river, while maintaining required water deliveries to Texas under a 2003 settlement.

During a public meeting Wednesday, Interstate Stream Commission Pecos River Bureau Chief Hannah Riseley-White said the pumping was needed to account for increasingly scarce freshwater supplies in the southeast region and across New Mexico.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that, as of Nov. 19, about 32% of New Mexico was under “exceptional” drought conditions – the highest designation that means fire danger increases, no surface water is available for agriculture and large rivers run dry.

Most of Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties were under exceptional drought, while about 100% of the state was experiencing “severe” drought and 73% was designated under “extreme” drought.

Riseley-White said the current pumping, which began this fall from two well sites in southeast New Mexico owned by the state, was exclusively to augment water for the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID) – the most senior water rights holder on the river – as required by state law when supplies are low.

Per a 2003 settlement between the state and the CID, if the state forecasts that the CID’s March water supplies to be less than 50,000 acre-feet, it must use its augmentation wells to attempt to make up the difference.

The November forecast showed the CID’s supplies would likely be below 45,000 acre-feet and Riseley-White said it could be even lower in March as drought conditions persist through the winter – up to 10,000 of 12,000 acre-feet short – and La Niña conditions could lead to an even drier winter than average.

“The basin is really dry,” Riseley-White said. “We’re thinking we could be significantly short from that target come March 1.”

The augmentation does not guarantee the CID a certain amount of water, Riseley-Smith said, and helps ensure the CID does not make a priority call, which would take water rights from junior water rights holders to make up for the CID’s losses.

Water from the augmentation wells is pumped to the reservoir at Brantley Lake, where it is diverted into the Pecos River and delivered to CID members.

The state’s wellsite at Seven Rivers, which is at Brantley Lake, will account for most of the augmentation and pumping began on Oct. 28, with five wells in operation. As of Nov.17, the commission reported 720 acre-feet had been delivered from Seven Rivers.

More water will also be sent from a well site at Lake Arthur about 35 miles upstream from Brantley in Chaves County.

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