Spring waters rolling on down as 2017 irrigation season begins

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A sure sign of spring appeared last week as workers began diverting water from the Rio Grande into hundreds of miles of canals and ditches to start the 2017 irrigation season in New Mexico.

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A worker for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District clears debris from the main Corrales canal. Trash, leaves and weeds must be removed from the system of canals and ditches at the start of each irrigation season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A healthy snowpack this year means the state should have plenty of water to run though those ditches, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District officials said Friday.

“As long as it doesn’t get too hot, too soon, and all the runoff comes at once,” said Mike Gonzales, an irrigation system supervisor for the district.

Cool nights and warm days would be the ideal in the days and weeks ahead to keep the snowpack intact well into the spring, he said.

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The time-honored job of opening the irrigation system begins by clearing the winter’s accumulation of weeds, leaves and trash and flushing water through canals, laterals and acequias.

Gonzales and his crew, once called “ditch riders,” began their work Wednesday by releasing Rio Grande water at the Angostura diversion dam near Algodones and running water down to Albuquerque’s North Valley.

Over about a month or so, the crew will work its way down to the Isleta diversionary dam at the southern end of the district’s Albuquerque division.

At the same time, other crews will perform the same work in three other divisions along 150 river miles that comprise the district, from Cochiti Dam in Sandoval County south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County.

Water begins to flow southward after crews from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District opened the gates in the main Corrales canal in west Albuquerque near Alameda. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal

Water begins to flow southward after crews from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District opened the gates in the main Corrales canal in west Albuquerque near Alameda. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Fat snowpacks in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado promise a healthy runoff this spring, said Mike Hamman, the district’s CEO.

On Friday, snowpack in the Rio Chama basin was at 164 percent of normal, and the upper Rio Grande basin was 145 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Plentiful runoff would be good news for farmers and the Rio Grande silvery minnow – one of North America’s most endangered fish – that relies on spring runoff to cue spawning, Hamman said.

“It’s definitely beneficial for all of us to have a good runoff,” he said. “Our goal is to have a really good runoff sometime between mid-March and mid-June so that we get good over-bank flows so the minnow can spawn.”

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