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State braces for another year of drought

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico is staring down the fifth consecutive year of drought, with the first runoff forecast of the year pointing to yet another year of low flows on the Rio Grande.

Water managers cautioned that it is still early, with months left for mountain snows to catch up.

“There’s a lot of winter yet to come,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The forecast is based in large part on the amount of snow that has fallen in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado to date. That snow, when it melts, provides the river runoff used in the Rio Grande Valley over the spring and summer.

With a bad snowpack so far, even a wet spring may not be enough to forestall the fifth consecutive year of below-average runoff on the Rio Grande, according to forecaster Angus Goodbody with the National Water and Climate Center in Portland, Ore.

A00_jd_08jan_Elephant-ButteThe early forecast also is bad for the southern Colorado mountains that supply water to the San Juan-Chama Project, which provides water for Albuquerque. The city has groundwater to fall back on, so low river flows don’t pose immediate water supply concerns. It is farming that suffers when the rivers are low.

This year’s preliminary forecast could be especially bad news for farmers in southern New Mexico. Elephant Butte Reservoir, their key water source, is currently at just 13 percent of capacity, less than last year at this time. And this year’s January forecast is worse than last year’s, noted University of New Mexico climatologist Dave Gutzler.

Southern New Mexico farmers have made up for Rio Grande shortfalls in recent years with groundwater, but with water tables dropping, it is unclear now long that can continue, said Mesilla Valley pecan farmer Greg Daviet. “That is the million-dollar question,” he said Tuesday. “How long can we keep pumping groundwater?”

The key to surviving another bad water year, Daviet said, is for water users to find ways to share scarce supplies, rather than fighting over scraps.

“Droughts end before litigation resolves,” Daviet said. “I believe it will be wet again.”

Area farmers already are experimenting with creative approaches to dealing with shortfalls, for example leasing land used to grow cotton and other less lucrative crops and leaving it fallow, using the saved water to keep high-value pecan crops going.

Pecans are the biggest crop by acreage in Doña Ana County, which is the largest pecan-producing county in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The last time Elephant Butte was close to full was 1998. Since then, it has dropped steadily as downstream water use outstripped inflows from snowpack year after year.

The problem, since the late 1990s, has been a general lack of snow and warmer temperatures, which have reduced the amount of water that eventually makes it to the region’s rivers.

Things have been especially bad the last four years because of warm, dry springs, Gutzler said. That has led to both early snowmelt and more loss of snow to dry spring winds, water that never even has a chance to make it to the Rio Grande.

If there is a hopeful sign, it is that we still have a chance of a shift to El Niño, the Pacific Ocean climate pattern that helps guide our winter and spring storm track. It has been looming for months but has not quite had the oomph to influence our weather.

“There is plenty of room for improvement if El Niño kicks in,” Gutzler said.