Shortened irrigation season means NM will ‘chip away’ at water debt to Texas, official says

By: - October 13, 2021 5:15 am

A farmer’s field near Las Cruces, N.M. (Photo by Santana Ochoa / Source NM)

The controversial choice to ban irrigation along the Rio Grande as of Oct. 1 in central New Mexico has already shown some benefits, an official told board members of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District on Monday.

The Board of Directors voted Aug. 20 to shorten the irrigation season by one month, a decision that affected about 11,000 irrigators along the river between Cochiti Pueblo and the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. 

The choice meant farmers had to make difficult choices about how to sustain their operations, including forgoing their fall crops or taking on debt to stay above water, they told Source New Mexico. It’s the second year in a row that the MRGCD stopped diversions for irrigators in October, citing drought conditions.

Before the decision to ban irrigation, water flowed into the Elephant Butte reservoir at a rate of 40 cubic feet per second, said Anne Marken, the acting MRGCD water operations director, at the board’s regular meeting Monday. 

At the moment, water is flowing into the reservoir at about 125 cubic feet per second, which Marken attributed to the ban.

“We’re currently seeing the benefits of the early shutdown down south,” she said. 

The amount of water in the reservoir has also grown by about 1,100 acre-feet since Oct. 1, she said. 

But Glen Duggins, the only full-time farmer on the board, said the benefits Marken described don’t outweigh the costs to farmers who depend on the river for their livelihoods. The board also voted to wait to begin the irrigation season in April, a month later than normal, which also wreaked havoc on the growing season, he said. 

“The price is too high for the farmers and the amount of water that’s going (south) is almost immeasurable,” he said. 

It would have taken about 8,000 acre feet of water to help farmers keep their growing plans intact this year, Duggins said. That’s a relatively small amount of water for such a vital purpose, he added. 

Duggins said he knows of many farmers who are now saddled with debt that will take numerous good water years to pay off. He fears the shortened irrigation season will become the new normal, as the MRGCD disproportionately burdens farmers with the requirements of the compact.

“They’re just squeezing us,” he said of the board. 

As of the August meeting, New Mexico owed about 96,000 acre feet of water to Texas, which is about 31 billion gallons, as part of the Rio Grande Compact. That’s the 1938 tri-state agreement that governs the amount of water shared between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. 

Since then, unofficial estimates have been updated to show that New Mexico owes 133,000 acre feet, according to the MRGCD. 

If that debt were to get to 200,000 acre feet, New Mexico would violate the compact, potentially hamstringing the state’s ability to use any of the water in its reservoirs.

The decision to prohibit irrigation occurred as a water dispute between Texas and New Mexico makes its way to the Supreme Court. Texas filed suit against New Mexico in 2013, alleging New Mexico is violating its part of the compact by allowing groundwater irrigation south of Elephant Butte reservoir, and, in doing, so reducing the amount of water owed to Texas.

Sending water south that would have otherwise gone to farmers’ fields is part of a strategy to slowly reduce the debt owed to Texas. An MRGCD attorney said in August it would be “bad optics” to add to the debt while the legal dispute intensifies. 

Marken said the state will soon send 14,000 acre-feet from El Vado reservoir south, water that was reserved for use by pueblos in the district but never used. That’s one way she said New Mexico will “chip away” at the debt. 

But next year will present its own challenges, she said. It’s too early to say what the winter snowpack will be and how much water will be available for farmers in the spring, or if meager precipitation will also be sent to Texas to reduce New Mexico’s debt.

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.