Editorial: New Mexico’s water woes run a lot deeper than Rio Grande - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: New Mexico’s water woes run a lot deeper than Rio Grande

Last year, farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District could understand the powerful board’s reasoning, even if they didn’t like the outcome.

Rio Grande flows were dropping fast. Compact restrictions on native water storage and the rehabilitation project on El Vado Dam meant the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project was supplying the Conservancy District’s only stored water.

The situation was dire.

When the San Juan-Chama Project water was gone, MRGCD — which provides irrigation for about 60,000 acres, including six pueblos — would be completely dependent on natural Rio Grande flows.

The Conservancy District told irrigators to expect extended periods without water. Agencies were timing water releases to protect sensitive fish from the rapidly drying river.

Last June, farmers depending on irrigation were warned the MRGCD could be out of water in a couple of weeks. The Rio Grande was about to go dry. Then we got lucky when heavy monsoon rains filled the river and allowed the season to be extended.

This year, the river is running high with spring runoff. Farmers are asking questions about water allocation, but no one seems to have any answers, much less a plan.

Dozens of farmers, mostly from south of Albuquerque, drove tractors with signs reading “No farmers, no food, no future” and “Save our farms” to the MRGCD office in Albuquerque last Monday in protest.

Farmer Mark Garcia of Tomé said farmers were getting water on a 21-day rotation, not enough in some cases. And getting it late. Garcia said in past years, his family farm about five miles northeast of Belen received irrigated water by the second week in March. He said this year it got to Tomé on April 20, not good for farmers cultivating spring crops.

The Conservancy District’s water distribution division manager said the 21-day rotation was a result of miscommunication with irrigation services operators and irrigation would now be on a supply-on-demand basis. What? Water is livelihood on a farm. Why the incompetence?

Many farmers believe the Conservancy District, which is responsible for drainage, irrigation and flood control over a 150-mile stretch from Cochiti Dam to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, is mismanaging irrigation water, improperly maintaining irrigation ditches and suffering from a bloated administration.

It’s not a good look when you’re responsible for water in the desert in a drought.

One underlying issue is the district’s nearly 100-year-old irrigation system. The MRGCD board voted 5-0 Monday to impose a 1 mill tax increase for capital investment in equipment and infrastructure. MRGCD’s chief engineer said the district had 10 major infrastructure breaks in its aging irrigation system this season. All property owners within the Conservancy District’s boundaries, irrigators or not, will be assessed a portion of $4.3 million a year for irrigation system improvements, costing the owner of a property assessed at $200,000 an additional $67 a year.

It’s a drop in the bucket. The MRGCD says it needs $175 million for priority projects.

In the meantime, farmers want answers about why water isn’t flowing as the Rio Grande swells.

But New Mexico’s water problems run much deeper. New Mexico is part of the Rio Grande Compact, an agreement ratified in 1939 meant to ensure the equitable distribution of Rio Grande Basin water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

New Mexico owes Texas water, that state wants it, and N.M. farmers don’t get it.

“You are sending our precious gold down to Texas,” one farmer yelled out Monday. “You are making contributions to a compact that is killing farmers,” another shouted.

New Mexico is also part of the Colorado River Compact of 1922. Colorado River tributaries serve relatively small portions of northwest and southwest New Mexico, but the basin’s water is essential for Albuquerque. Rio Grande flows are closely tied to the Colorado via the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project, which diverts Colorado River Basin water into the Rio Grande.

New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada are receiving less water from the Colorado River this year because of rapidly declining reservoirs at Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona.

And it’s only going to get worse.

A 50-year water plan released by the Interstate Stream Commission last fall says climate change will “upend the historical trends on which water use practices and interstate compacts are based.” The report predicts in the next 50 years, Rio Grande flows in New Mexico will decline by 30% and N.M.’s overall water supply could shrink by 25% to 30%. By the time today’s high school graduates approach retirement age, Albuquerque’s climate will feel like Roswell’s. Higher temperatures in 50 years could prompt a 22% increase in water needed to irrigate crops.

Agriculture currently accounts for 77% of New Mexico’s water use. And that was before the explosion of nurseries to grow recreational marijuana indoors.

The bottom line is there is not enough water to go around now. We can expect more droughts like the 20-year drought affecting the entire western United States because of climate change.

Conservation is no longer enough.

Proposals like diverting water from the Mississippi to the Colorado River and Rio Grande systems have no traction. Desalination efforts to take advantage of New Mexico’s ample underground brackish water reserves are in their infancy, though countries like Israel and cities like El Paso have been doing it for years, if not decades.

New Mexico needs a plan to bridge the gap between current supply and future demand, which includes addressing the running debt of water owed to Texas. Hard questions need to be asked about sustaining agriculture. And the farmers critical to our economy, health and culture deserve honest answers. The MRGCD and other water managers owe them that much.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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