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Water managers bracing for another dry year in NM

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

For the fourth consecutive year, New Mexico water users are watching a skimpy snowpack in the state’s northern mountains and worrying about how much water they will have this spring and summer.

On the state’s largest rivers – the Pecos, the Rio Grande and the San Juan – the thin covering of mountain snow means less water in early forecasts.

“The runoff looks pathetic again,” said Greg Lewis, Pecos River basin manager for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

While a shift to a wetter pattern in February and March could yet turn things around, forecasters say it would take multiple storms at this point to make up the deficit, and water managers around New Mexico are beginning to prepare for another bad year.

The question of who might be hurt and who will avoid the pain illustrates the complex nature of New Mexico water, where drought is no one big thing, but rather a series of little things, depending on the needs of each group of water users.

The state’s major cities say they will be fine in 2015. Those that use river water have backup supplies. And some farmers, especially on the Pecos, have water in reservoir storage to fall back on.

But with the Rio Grande’s major reservoirs largely empty, 2015 could be a difficult year for farmers along the state’s central river.

Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which use imported Colorado River Basin water, could see a shortfall in their primary source in 2015 for the second year in a row. But both communities have been banking water and should not see any impact this year.

Both cities recently built river diversions and water treatment plants so they could deliver imported San Juan-Chama Project water to their customers – water diverted from three Colorado River Basin headwaters streams in Colorado, across the Continental Divide so it can be used in central New Mexico.

In 2014, the San Juan-Chama Project had its first shortfall in 40 years of operation. In a Jan. 15 letter, the Bureau of Reclamation warned the project’s users that could happen again this year.

Santa Fe has been stockpiling water to hedge against such a risk and should not feel any effects in 2015, said Rick Carpenter with the city’s water department. The water, more than three years’ worth, is currently stored in Heron, El Vado and Abiquiu reservoirs in northeast New Mexico.

“We have a lot of San Juan-Chama water from previous years that we’ve been banking,” Carpenter said.

Santa Fe also has diversified its sources of supply, with two separate river water sources and two fields of groundwater pumps.

“You don’t want to have all your eggs in one basket,” Carpenter said. “You want to be able to roll with whatever punches Mother Nature throws at you.”

Albuquerque is in a similar situation, with three years’ worth of San Juan-Chama water in storage, most of it in Abiquiu Reservoir on the Rio Chama northwest of Santa Fe, said John Stomp, chief operations officer for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

On the Pecos, Lewis said, reservoirs largely are full as a result of big late-summer rains in recent years. So even a lousy snowpack will not mean problems for farmers on the state’s eastern plains who depend on Pecos River water to water their crops.

“This year is no problem,” he said.

Troubles at the Butte

The most serious problems are likely to happen in south-central New Mexico, where farmers dependent on water from Elephant Butte Reservoir are facing another dry year.

“The effects of drought are disproportionately felt downstream,” said Phil King, a New Mexico State University professor and adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

In nearly a century of operation, irrigation season for Elephant Butte farmers traditionally began in February, or March at the latest. That was even true during New Mexico’s last historic drought in the 1950s.

But in 2013, for the first time in history, irrigation releases for Elephant Butte Irrigation District farmers did not begin until May.

That happened again in 2014, and with a low runoff forecast and little water stockpiled in the reservoir from previous years, King said it is likely to happen again this year. King said last week that irrigation releases may not begin until late May or early June.

To compensate for the lack of river water in recent years, farmers have been pumping groundwater, especially to irrigate the lower Rio Grande’s lucrative pecan orchards. That heavy pumping has caused problems, lowering water tables out of the reach of some pumpers and reducing water quality, especially for residents who use groundwater for household needs.

“The lesson there, which is a longer term lesson, is that we’re drawing down our groundwater bank account,” said University of New Mexico professor Dave Gutzler, part of a team of researchers studying drought vulnerability in southern New Mexico.

In response to the lack of river water and dwindling groundwater, farmers already are adjusting what crops they plant, King said – fallowing land completely, switching crops like corn and cotton that can live with less water, or switching from three plantings and harvests per year to two or one.

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