Southern New Mexico’s climate is arid to semi-arid with abundant sunshine, low humidity and limited annual rainfall and snow, yet water from the Rio Grande Project, a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation irrigation water transfer venture, has turned the state’s southern region into a lush garden over the years, perfectly suited for agricultural production.
The desert-to-garden transformation is the direct result of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation project, first authorized in 1905 and finally and fully implemented in the early 1950s, consisting of two large storage dams, six small diversion dams, two flood-control dams, 596 miles of irrigation canals and their branches, and 465 miles of drainage channels and pipe that stretch across Doña Ana County, bringing the liquid of life into farms and ranches from Hatch, New Mexico, in the north to south of Las Cruces in the south.
According to USDA’s latest agriculture census, Doña Ana County is the largest pecan-producing county in the nation.
Most of the long established pecan producers of the county say the miles and miles of irrigation canals were once filled to the top with clear, clean water from the reservoirs and used each year to flood the fields and groves of the region with abundant irrigation throughout the dry, hot summers of the Southwest. Many remember fishing for large bass in the irrigation canals with plenty of water that contributed to the region's agricultural crops.
But with three years of drought, southern New Mexico farmers say waters of the Rio Grande do not run deep as once they did, and reservoir levels have fallen to the lowest in years.
Now, irrigation canals once full of water remain dry for well over a month into the irrigation season, and officials at Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) say no more than 39 percent of the average annual watershed runoff is expected to flow back into the river to help the reservoir recover. That means little or no irrigation water will be released into the canals until June or July.
Dismal water outlook for 2013 growing season
Water supply consultant J. Phillip King of Las Cruces told members of the EBID in March that the forecast for irrigation water this year is “dismal” and says in the past, when the reservoirs were full irrigation water began flowing in mid-February.
“We’re more than a decade into this drought [cycle],” King told irrigation district board members last month in a special meeting. “The last one lasted 25 years. There have been droughts in the [distant] past that lasted a century.”
The water situation is bad news for all stakeholders who depend on the Rio Grande’s water to survive. The last Census of Agriculture put the value of the region’s annual agricultural production at $400 million per year, but King and irrigation district officials warn if the climate is trending toward a continued dry period, farming operations will be further stressed and threatened, leading to yield declines and possible crop failures.
On the brighter side for pecan growers of Doña Ana County, years of flooding the fields from the canals on groves south of Las Cruces raised groundwater levels to where pumping irrigation water from ground wells is possible. In spite of the added expense, it might prove to be a successful alternative that could save the day if substantial rains do not fall this year.
Many growers, however, say higher input costs will increase rapidly as groundwater is pumped, and that could create a roadblock to successful marketing. But Extension specialists at NMSU say substantial pre-season contracts for pecan exports to China could help if Mexican pecan exports do not gain ground and if demand remains steady.
Greg Daviet, a pecan producer in the Mesilla Valley, says his family first started farming the area in 1905. Now, like never before that he can remember, area farmers need to manage their water more carefully.
“The most important thing is to manage water,” he says. Daviet utilizes a computer-generated irrigation model that helps him schedule his multiple fields.
EBID officials say it is not the first time drought has hammered agriculture of the region. Starting in the late 1940s, drought hit the lower basin, but the region briefly benefited from substantial rains in the mid 50s. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Elephant Butte, the largest of the dammed reservoirs, reached levels near capacity for an extended period. Through the 80s and into the late 90s rainfall and snowpack provided adequate water to the region for an extended period. By the turn of the century, though, the drought forced lower reservoir levels, and those levels continue to fall this early spring season.
If you are enjoying reading this article, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily  and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
Drought-induced political two-step
EBID officials say the drought is to blame for growing tensions between state officials in Texas and New Mexico over water allotments of the Rio Grande, complicating matters even more. Until recent years, three states, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, have honored a Rio Grande Compact to share the waters of the upper Rio Grande.
Colorado’s delivery of water across the New Mexico state line is based on stream gauge readings near the river’s headwaters, but getting water to Texas is not as simple. According to the Compact, New Mexico delivers water into Elephant Butte Reservoir, located 90 miles north of the border with Texas. But the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation then allocates water to Texas and New Mexico, historically dividing available water. New Mexico has traditionally received about 57 percent of available water and Texas about 43 percent.
But in a federal lawsuit earlier this year, Texas officials charge New Mexico with violating the Compact by allowing diversions of surface water and by increasing groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico, which in turn depletes river levels in the Rio Grande and, ultimately, the amount of water Texas receives.
Prior to the Texas lawsuit, the New Mexico Attorney General’s office filed litigation against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation questioning the federal government’s right to allocate waters within the state. Recently they accused Texas officials of initiating litigation against New Mexico with the U.S. Supreme Court over water rights rather than opting to address increasing water use problems within the Lone Star State.
Officials within the New Mexico State Engineer’s Office say their state-initiated litigation against the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was largely based on a 2008 Rio Grande Project operating agreement that redistributed New Mexico surface water to Texas at the expense of farmers in southern New Mexico. They say New Mexico officials never agreed to be a party to that agreement.
Steven Hernandez, attorney for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, says the District is waiting for state and federal officials to act on matters of litigation. But he says New Mexico officials may be at blame for Texas litigation filed with the Supreme Court because the Attorney General of New Mexico failed to act. He said the water district stepped up to help barter an agreement when New Mexico state officials failed to agree with El Paso Water District and U.S. federal officials who signed on to the 2008 Operating Agreement.
Hernandez offered yet another solution to the ongoing disagreement recently.
“We’ll make sure Texas gets its deliveries. If additional water is needed, EBID will guarantee that. In exchange, EBID farmers want the threat of Texas suing in the Supreme Court removed,” he said.