With the onslaught of full blown winter across the lower Rockies, southern New Mexico farmers are hoping for heavier-than-normal snows this year at higher elevations, a condition that could improve irrigation allotments significantly for the 2014 growing season.
"It was a dismal period for water from the river last year," says Federico Cabrera, who farms and runs cattle just south of Elephant Butte Reservoir. "While late season rains provided some relief, we are looking for a heavy snowpack in the mountains if we hope to get any irrigation relief this year."
Cabrera isn't the only one concerned that winter weather may be the only hope for an improved irrigation outlook in 2014.
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"It's the same for everyone down the Rio Grande as far south as the Texas border. Those that could tapped into groundwater to stay afloat, but in spite of some good rain starting in September, the riverbed is dry in many places and when spring returns, if there isn't a good snowmelt, we're back in the same shape as last year," he said.
Hydrologists agree. The annual snowmelt is a saving grace for the dry Southwest, and after continuous years of severe drought across most of New Mexico, that is especially true now.
Wayne Sleep, a hydrologic technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), says early winter started out well in terms of snowfall. But by late December, the heavier snows began to skirt northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Historically, the heaviest snows fall in January and February, so hope remains that snow accumulations will pile up before spring.
2013 was record low irrigation year
Phil King, water engineer for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, says last year was a record low year for irrigation, but for now the reservoir is in better shape compared to last year. But without a good snowpack and spring rains, it could still be a dismal year for water deliveries.
Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoir are instrumental in catching melted snow, which in the past has proven to be one of the primary methods of restoring water resources to the irrigation system. Water collected at Elephant Butte is used to distribute irrigation allotments for southern New Mexico, El Paso County and to Mexico according to a water treaty.
In excessively dry years, like 2013 and other recent years, there simply isn't enough water to go around.
Irrigation officials say water deliveries to Mexico are a priority because of the treaty, and water deliveries to El Paso County are required as a result of a water dispute settlement with Texas. Clouding the irrigation issue is pending federal litigation filed by Texas water officials that could further tax dire water resources in New Mexico.
But King and others say heavy snows this month and next could go a long way in restoring water to the reservoirs that southern New Mexico farmers depend upon.
Thanks to late summer rains and early October snows, the reservoir levels at Elephant Butte have risen compared to the same time last year. But a water shortage still exists in New Mexico and unless heavy snows fall and rains return early this year, there will be irrigation shortages once again.
As the new year dawned federal officials reported snowpack in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado was nearly 90 percent of what was normal, an encouraging sign compared to recent years. But since then snowfall averages have dropped and King says while he remains hopeful, chances are good water concerns will return by spring.
Farmers across the southern region of the state say the time is quickly approaching when they must make a final decision on what and how much to plant, and the amount of snowmelt and early spring rains help them determine what their fields can support based upon groundwater pumping. Until then, their eyes remain fixed on the weather as they hope to see heavier-than-average snow showers and snowpack in the forecast.