New Mexico farmers prep for irrigation season

March 3, 2014 • State News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — With the growing season approaching and the drought continuing to bear down on New Mexico, one of the state’s major irrigation districts said Monday it is getting ready to prime its canals.

Officials with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District gathered along one of their major channels as water rushed passed to discuss what might be in store for some 11,000 farmers in the valley who depend on the irrigation system.

Derrick Lente, chairman of the district’s board of directors, said the district is expecting to have more water than it did last year at this time, and it should be enough to get farmers through spring and early summer.

“We’re going to do our best to stretch the season the entire [auth] way,” Lente said. “If we manage it the right way, we can do it. But the wild card is Mother Nature, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”

The state’s irrigation districts depend heavily on snowpack in the northern mountains and runoff captured during monsoon season. But the state has been struggling through consecutive years of severe drought, and this winter has been one of the driest on record.

Still, irrigation officials in the Middle Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere in New Mexico say the watering season is looking more promising thanks to record rainfall that helped to replenish reservoirs last fall.

And if the spring runoff pans out, Lente said the Middle Rio Grande district could have about 60,000 acre-feet of water to distribute this year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons — enough to supply at least two average households with water a year.

Farmers in the Carlsbad area are expecting at least 2 acre-feet once the irrigation season starts to ramp up later this month. That’s four times last year’s initial predictions.

In southern New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District says farmers this year could see more than half an acre-foot, double last year’s allotment.

Gary Esslinger, manager of the Elephant Butte district, spent part of last week meeting with farmers throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley, where some of the state’s signature crops — chile, onions and pecans — are grown. He said they may have to wait until June for the district to deliver water.

“We’re telling farmers that there’s just not enough water right now to open up,” he said. “We’re just not seeing the runoff, but that’s not to say we don’t get some storms in March and April that could help us.”

Forecasters with the National Weather Service say the state should expect a spring season in which precipitation levels are below, if not well below, average.

But some water managers said they will continue to hold out hope this year given the unexpected burst of rain last fall.

“The first rule is never predict the weather in New Mexico because you just don’t know what can happen,” said Tom Thorpe, a spokesman for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

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