SALEM, N.M. (KRQE) - Drought-hammer farmers in some parts of the state say conditions are the worst they've ever seen, and now the fate of this year's chile crop hangs in the balance.
In the Hatch Valley--New Mexico's chile belt--the Rio Grande is just a river of sun-scorched dry sand and has been this way for three years.
A few miles upstream at Elephant Butte, where Hatch irrigation water is stored, the lake is a shadow of its former self ringed mostly by wide beaches.
It holds the smallest amount of water available for irrigation in almost 100 years.
In about a month, the Elephant Butte Dam will release a trickle for a few weeks for farmers instead of the months of flow they need.
"We haven't had a rain here since about September last year," said Jimmy Lytle, a third-generation farmer whose his chile fields are stunted and struggling.
In Lytle's greenhouse his seed plants with water are what the plants in the fields should look like: bigger and healthier.
Like many farmers in the Hatch Valley Lytle pumps groundwater to make up for lost river water. Efficient drip-irrigation hoses below the surface reduce water loss, but the groundwater from a rapidly falling water table is salty leaving a crusty residue reducing productivity and possibly quality.
"All of the growers are in the same boat I'm in." Lytle said. "Everyone is having the same problem--impacting everyone."
Even when the meager release of river water flows down nearby irrigation ditches in June, those are just as parched as this dry riverbed. Experts say a lot of the water could be sucked up by the ditches.
Lytle and others say there will be a chile crop this year, but this water shortage cannot be survived forever.
Farmers say as the water table goes down in the Hatch Valley, the concentrations of minerals in the ground water goes up.
They say what they need is good clean surface water.
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