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New Mexico irrigation districts halt water deliveries

The only real solution is for the drought to end and the rains and the snows to return to their normal averages.

It comes as little surprise to most farmers and ranchers in New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Valley River Basin, but now that summer's end is near, irrigation district's across the region have cut off or plan to shut off irrigation water releases until at least next spring.

According to Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) officials, water flow in the river has been greatly reduced now that the gates at Elephant Butte Reservoir have been closed, increasing demand on what little water remains in Caballo Reservior just north of Hatch, the State's richest chili pepper production area.

The cut off of irrigation water will have little impact on the chili pepper industry in southern New Mexico, partly because of recent rains but mostly because pepper harvest is already underway and the last thing farmers want now is more water on their fields.

Water officials say it is just a matter of days before the flow of water in the Rio Grande will slow to a trickle, ultimately bringing the river to a bone-dry stage unless unexpected rains provide scant relief, likely only for a day or two.

The exception will be timely releases of water into the river that will be earmarked for farmers in Texas at the neighboring El Paso County Irrigation District No. 1, which is still receiving its guaranteed share of water releases. But these deliveries will end Aug. 22, virtually guaranteeing a dry river until next year.

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The 90,000-acre Elephant Butte Irrigation District suspended its season July 31, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reports a northern Mexico irrigation district also ended its season. But water officials on both sides of the border report that while their seasons have ended, irrigation water pumped through the system this year represents an improvement over last year.

EBID officials say the river still remains overtaxed, however, and in spite of late season rains the region has received little hope of drought conditions significantly improving in the immediate future. The best hope for additional water next year rests with the possibility of substantial mountain snows this winter.

Pecan growers in the Las Cruces area say they will be negatively affected by another year of early-season cutoffs. With nuts just now reaching a period of robust growth, a shortage of irrigation water will likely stress orchards even further. Last year the state led the nation in total commercial production of pecans. But in spite of an off-year in pecan’s alternate bearing production cycle in New Mexico, early estimates pegged New Mexico's pecan production this year at a healthy 55 million pounds.

Las Cruces area grower Les Fletcher says in spite of better rainfall late last year and increased rains last month, irrigation allotments from the river once again were "extremely unsatisfactory."  He says the problem has been going on for several years and is indicative of continuing drought conditions all across the Southwest.

Fee concerns

EBID officials say some middle basin farmers have expressed concern over irrigation fees while receiving less water in recent drought years, but they were quick to point out that the cost of maintaining the expansive irrigation systems with its many miles of delivery canals is ongoing regardless how much water flows through the system, and they also point out that this year's deliveries outpaced last years allotments by nearly double.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologists say the culprit is, of course, the ongoing and severe drought, now in its fourth year. Even with moderate improvements this year and late last year, they say catching back up to "normal averages" is going to take a number of years even if seasonal rains return to normal.

Many farmers across the region say they remember the days that irrigation cutoff dates were scheduled in mid to late September, and even as late as October in wet years. District officials, however, point out not only has the drought made conditions severe in recent times, but so has the demand for water because of more and larger agricultural operations.

In spite of the difficulties associated with the drought and the need to cut back planted acres for both chili pepper fields and pecan groves, groundwater pumping has brought enough relief to most farmers to weather the storm, or the lack thereof.

Without exception, most every stakeholder in the state agrees the only real solution is for the drought to end and the rains and the snows to return to their normal averages.




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