Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Charlie Sanchez has farmed alfalfa and oats in Tomé for 40 years.
But this year, the regional irrigation district is paying the farmer and conservation biologist not to water some of his fields.
Water supply is expected to be extremely limited this summer for the agency that manages irrigation from Cochiti Dam to Bosque del Apache.
“I think enrolling in this program will benefit downstream agriculture and help maintain flow in the river,” Sanchez said. “That will also help keep the integrity of the Rio Grande bosque.”
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District received $15 million from the state Legislature this year for an emergency program that will pay farmers to fallow fields for the season.
The initiative is part of a “serious element of conservation that needs to take place” to meet water delivery obligations to Texas, said Casey Ish, the district’s water resources specialist.
“This program is an option to farmers who have land that maybe has an older rotation of crop on there, and is in need of a rotation or resting,” Ish said. “It’s intended to allow folks to opt in for a season to rest a field, and then turn that field around next season and go back to agriculture.”
The district changed its fallowing program from last year by reducing the minimum land requirement from 5 acres to 1 acre.
The influx of state funds enabled payments of $425 per acre, up from $275 last year.
Ish said that price bump has enticed those with larger farms who are deciding to consolidate their most productive fields and fallow other acreage, while still making money.
“It’s not a ‘buy and dry’ operation where we intend on long-term fallowing of fields,” he said.
The district is also focusing on projects that will boost irrigation efficiency on farms and improve the river channel south of Socorro.
About 100 irrigators have already signed up for the program to fallow 1,700 acres.
“There’s no silver bullet when it comes to water conservation,” Ish said. “As always, we see farmers step up to the plate.”
Regional farmers have faced water shortages for the past several irrigation seasons because of extreme drought.
All of New Mexico is experiencing some level of drought.
The amount of water in the Upper Rio Grande watershed snowpack is nearing or slightly above average levels.
Anne Marken, the district water operations manager, said this year’s supply constraints are mainly due to Rio Grande Compact debt and El Vado Dam repairs.
New Mexico ended 2021 with a debt to Texas of about 127,000 acre-feet of water, or 41 billion gallons.
As the debt grows, so do state restrictions on storing river water for its own municipal and agricultural use.
“Due to the size of that compact debt, the (district) committed to only divert 50% of the total inflows to the middle Rio Grande for the duration of spring runoff,” Marken said.
To meet that goal, the district staggered season start dates beginning in the southernmost regions and working north.
Once river stretches begin to dry this summer, water managers will keep specific reaches wet for endangered species habitat.
Then the irrigation district will revert back to diverting river flows for farmers.
Marken stressed that the adapted season rules are “a commitment for this year only.”
“It was intended to really maximize the amount of deliveries to Elephant Butte (Reservoir) that we make in the springtime,” she said.
El Vado Dam will be under reconstruction this summer.
The major repairs will severely limit water storage capacity for irrigation, endangered species habitat and compact compliance.
The state requested that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allow for use of Abiquiu Reservoir storage.
But an agreement has yet to be finalized.
After Rio Grande flows peak this spring from snowmelt runoff, the district will need to rely on natural river flows for irrigation supply because of the storage limitations.
Drought and water use restrictions in the Colorado River Basin could also influence Rio Grande flows.
New Mexico’s allocations from the San Juan-Chama Project, which diverts Colorado River water into the Rio Grande Basin, are expected to be about 60% of normal for the second consecutive year.
Area farmers with groundwater wells are less reliant on river flows and irrigation district allocations.
But that doesn’t stop them from conserving water.
Shannon Concho, who is the lead trainer for Bernalillo County’s “Grow the Growers” farmer training program, is growing sweet potatoes and garlic at his Concho Loco Farm in the South Valley.
“You’ve got to listen to the land, to observe it and see what it needs,” Concho said.
Farm trainees and staff are planting varieties that don’t need as much water, harvesting rainwater, and using mulch and wood chips to keep the soil moist.
The team doesn’t pump the well when water is flowing through the acequia.
“I think we’re going to have less water this year, so we’re going to be relying on our mulch and our main water well,” Concho said.
County Open Space resource specialist Dustin Chavez-Davis recently worked with Concho and volunteers to clean out the acequia behind the Gutiérrez-Hubbell House on Isleta Boulevard.
“We know that the drought is impacting all up and down the river,” Chavez-Davis said. “There’s less snowpack when we have warm winters, so we’re trying to work with what we’ve got, and just conserve whatever we can.”
Matt Martinez, the irrigation district’s water distribution manager, said farmers should “use caution” when planning crops this year. “Considering our lack of control on the water supply, there is no guarantee of the number or frequency of irrigation deliveries that will be provided,” Martinez said. “But we’re going to do our best to efficiently and equitably distribute whatever supply is available to us.”
For Middle Valley farmers like Sanchez, the fallowing program is a key – if short-term – fix for the current water crisis.
“Agriculture is really an economic mainstream in New Mexico,” he said. “We want to try to maintain a balance between the two – agriculture and conservation of our water resources.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.