Farmers are cut off as NM aims to ‘chip away’ at water debt – Albuquerque Journal

Farmers are cut off as NM aims to ‘chip away’ at water debt

Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the Chile Pepper Institute, looks through a chile crop at New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas on Wednesday. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District voted Friday to end this year’s irrigation season a month early, on Oct. 1. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Travis Harris grows alfalfa and wheat just north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. His father and grandfather also tended the land, often planting cornfields as food for birds migrating along the Rio Grande.

“This is my livelihood,” Harris said. “This is how I live day to day for my family.”

But his winter crops may be in trouble this year.

Harris is one of hundreds of Middle Rio Grande Valley growers who will have another shortened season of water deliveries this fall, the local irrigation district decided Friday.

Water will shut off a month early, on Oct. 1.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board said the shutoff is necessary because of long-term drought and a large water debt to southern New Mexico and Texas.

“We understand this could potentially cause people to lose their farms,” said board member Stephanie Russo Baca, who represents Valencia County. “We’re not taking it lightly.”

The 1939 Rio Grande Compact governs river water deliveries among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

New Mexico owes about 43 billion gallons to downstream users under the compact.

The water debt doesn’t amount to a compact violation.

But if New Mexico’s debt reaches 200,000 acre-feet, or about 65 billion gallons, the state could face more restrictions on accessing stored water from El Vado Reservoir.

‘Digging a deep hole’

Mike Hamman, the MRGCD’s CEO and chief engineer, said that a yearslong cycle of accruing water debts during drought is not the answer for long-term water management.

“We’re digging a deep hole,” Hamman said.

An extra month of river flow without irrigation diversions would help “chip our way out of this mess” of water debts, Hamman said, by boosting deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

“Mother Nature is not providing (the water), so we have to adjust,” he said. “It’s not us taking it away from anybody, because the water is not even going to be there in October to do anything with, unless some miracle happens.”

The board’s 4-2 vote followed two hours of comments from farmers who said back-to-back short seasons have devastated crops during key planting times.

Board member Joaquin Baca was not present for the vote. Glen Duggins and Michael Sandoval voted against ending the season early.

The MRGCD delayed this year’s irrigation season start date by a month in spring 2021.

In fall 2020, the district cut the season a month short because of limited water.

The 2020 season could have ended as soon as mid-July.

But Texas and Colorado gave central New Mexico the green light to use 11 billion gallons from El Vado instead of delivering that water to Elephant Butte in the fall.

Must reexamine distribution

Valencia County dairy farmer Mikey Smith said local agriculture “will not exist anymore” if the district does not reexamine how to equitably distribute water and evaluate inefficient water use by some irrigators.

“Some of the biggest dairies we never thought were going to go out, have all sold off,” Smith said. “They can’t afford to feed their animals.”

A longer irrigation season could have harmed New Mexico’s standing as Texas pursues U.S. Supreme Court litigation over water deliveries, MRGCD attorney Chuck DuMars said.

“It would not be good optics, if we had gone forward and continued to increase the debit,” DuMars said.

Most farmers agreed with district staff that Rio Grande delivery efficiency from San Acacia Dam to Elephant Butte is a major obstacle to reducing water debt.

“I’ve had 10 inches of rain since the end of June on my farm,” San Antonio farmer Chris Sichler said. “We should have reduced that debt. The problem is we don’t even have a river channel that can get that water to Texas.”

The MRGCD has submitted a $30 million request to New Mexico’s congressional delegation for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to improve the river channel below San Acacia.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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