Never say “too late” when it comes to needed rainfall.
In a year when a spike in humidity is a welcome development to help cut down on the threat of wildfires, any amount of falling rain, large or small, is a welcome sign. Over the last week, heavy rains across large areas of New Mexico have been the cause of great relief to farmers and ranchers who say dry conditions throughout the summer not only hampered agriculture but also threatened the livelihood of heritage farm and ranch operations.
Earlier this year, officials at the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID) were warning farmers that irrigation allotments were being cut as a result of another year of extreme drought across the state, prompting water disputes between southeast New Mexico farmers and water users to the north in Roswell.
Carlsbad area farmers gathered last spring at a CID board meeting to voice their collective concerns and in hopes of spurring district officials to ask state lawmakers for help in the form of financial relief. District officials had told farmers they would be receiving only a small potion—about one-tenth—of their normal irrigation allotment this year because of the drought.
But alarmed alfalfa producers across the county wanted irrigation district support to approach legislators and confront them with a long-standing state policy to deliver water to land users who historically have been using water for the longest period of time. Alfalfa farmer Ronnie Walterscheid told farmers at the meeting it was time to fight back and to make sure lawmakers recognized the priority water rights of farmers across the state.
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District water manager Dudley Jones told farmers he was sympathetic to their cause, but he warned that state lawmakers would not limit ground well pumping in Roswell in order to irrigate farm fields in Carlsbad. He reminded farmers that water in southeastern New Mexico is shared by homeowners and industry—especially oil and gas—and by agricultural interests, like dairy operators, farmers and ranchers.
"In a dry year, there just isn't enough water to go around," he told the crowd of anxious growers.
But as August slipped into September, tropical activity in both the Gulf of Mexico and across the Mexican Pacific coast began to change as great masses of moisture-rich air began streaming across New Mexico, fueling an extended monsoon season over the lower Rocky Mountains. Over the last weekend the state received measurable rainfall as a result of not one, but two tropical systems influencing weather across the region. In fact, just two weeks into the month, the entire state of New Mexico has been reporting record or near-record rainfall.
Roads and bridges washed out
Road closure and bridge failures have been reported all across the state as heavy rains caused flooding in Albuquerque, Los Alamos, Santa Fe, and dozens of other cities spread across the state. In Albuquerque alone, where the average annual rainfall measures just over 8 inches, between 3 and 5 inches of rain were reported over the last five days.
Just south of Los Alamos over 9 inches of rain fell near White Rock, New Mexico, while Tucumcari received just over 4 inches. Socorro recorded nearly 5.5 inches of rain and Roswell reported almost 6 inches in the same period.
Storms closed roads and highways, damaged a number of public bridges across the state and stranded motorists and homeowners causing a number of rescues. By Sunday morning, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez elevated the state's Emergency Operation Center to Level 2 to help coordinate resources for assisting victims of heavy rains and flash flooding across the state.
Rural residents were evacuated in numerous locations including in Socorro County where the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco rivers merge. Near Elephant Butte, State Police identified a drowning victim who had been washed off a bridge, the only weather-related fatality in the state over the weekend.
In the western region of the state, the San Francisco River crested at 32 feet overnight Saturday, going over the top of two bridges and forcing the closure of the U.S. 180.
As a result of the heavy rains, lakes and reservoirs across the state have been receiving heavy runoffs and state water officials say the extreme drought of summer is now a distant memory. Near Carlsbad, flood waters that flowed into Bartley Reservoir prompted CID officials to announce a late-season release of an additional four-tenths of an acre-foot per acre of water for area alfalfa farmers.
The District uses four storage reservoirs stretched across the county and officials say not only have they been replenished substantially to allow for the extra release, but they also should be full enough to allow farmers to greet the new year without an irrigation water shortage.
A late season water delivery has been scheduled to begin as early as Sept. 24.
Farmers who attended a special CID board meeting this week said the additional water is more than enough to plant one more alfalfa crop this year before irrigation season officially ends in October.