NM valleys hum with sound of irrigation pumps

March 24, 2013 • State News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Farmers in southern New Mexico’s Hatch Valley are struggling their way through the drought by pumping saline water from shallow aquifers.

The Albuquerque Journal reports ( that the farming valleys that stretch across southern New Mexico from Elephant Butte Reservoir to the Texas border are humming with the sound of irrigation pumps that pull up groundwater to wet the fields.

The pumping of the groundwater is a poor substitute for Rio Grande water and poses long-term problems.

“The guys that can pump will pump,” said farmer Dino Cervantes. “The guys that can’t pump will suffer.”

The canals that usually supply clean Rio Grande water to one of New Mexico’s most storied and agriculturally [auth] productive regions remain bone dry a month into the irrigation season. With a meager snowpack in the mountains to the north, the forecast calls for just 39 percent of average runoff on the Rio Grande.

In the Hatch Valley, groundwater has dropped an average of 3 feet in the past three extreme drought years, according to an analysis by Erek Fuchs, groundwater resources manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

The district distributes Rio Grande Project water to what is arguably New Mexico’s richest farming region. The U.S. census of agriculture puts the value of the region’s agricultural production at $400 million per year.

In its northern stretch, the Hatch Valley is famous for its green chile. To the south, the irrigation district’s canals spread out across the Mesilla Valley, wrapping Las Cruces in a cocoon of summer green and cool and making Dona Ana County, according to the federal agricultural census, the largest pecan-producing county in the nation.

But in recent years, drought has emptied the river that feeds the project and the bloom has been coming off the dusty valleys of the lower Rio Grande. In a normal year, irrigation water starts flowing through the irrigation district’s canals in mid-February.

This year, the agency may not start doling out the meager supply until July, district water supply consultant Phil King told board members at a March 13 meeting. “Still, frankly, pretty dismal,” King said.

The last significant drought goes by the name “the drought of the ’50s,” but river records make clear that it really began in the 1940s. Elephant Butte Reservoir, a measure of how much water is available, refilled briefly in the mid-1950s, but didn’t really recover until the 1970s.

The Butte remained mostly full through the late 1990s before the current drought began sapping its savings bank, and it’s been relatively dry in these valleys ever since.

“We’re more than a decade into this drought,” King told irrigation district board members at their March meeting. “The last one lasted 25 years. There have been droughts that lasted a century.”

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