Farmers on Rio Grande in New Mexico face early water cutoff

New Mexico News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Hundreds of farmers who rely on the water from the irrigation district that channels water along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico face a second straight year of early cutoffs. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board voted Friday to end deliveries for irrigation a month early because of low water availability.

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The Oct. 1 shutoff means winter crops like those grown by Travis Harris just north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge about 90 miles (144 kilometers) south of Albuquerque are at risk. “This is my livelihood,” Harris told the Albuquerque Journal. “This is how I live day to day for my family.”

Harris grows alfalfa and wheat just like his father and grandfather did, often planting cornfields as food for birds migrating along the Rio Grande.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board said the shutoff is necessary because of long-term drought and a large water debt owed to southern New Mexico and Texas. “We understand this could potentially cause people to lose their farms,” said board member Stephanie Russo Baca, who represents Valencia County. “We’re not taking it lightly.”

The district’s decision is driven in part by the 1939 Rio Grande Compact, which governs river water deliveries among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

New Mexico already owes about 43 billion gallons to downstream users under the compact, but if that deficit reaches 63 million gallons it could face more restrictions on accessing stored water from El Vado Reservoir.

Mike Hamman, the MRGCD’s CEO and chief engineer, said that a years-long cycle of accruing water debts during drought is not the answer for long-term water management. “We’re digging a deep hole,” Hamman said.

Cutting irrigation diversions would help “chip our way out of this mess” of water debts, Hamman said. Doing so would increase deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir. “Mother Nature is not providing (the water), so we have to adjust,” he said. “It’s not us taking it away from anybody, because the water is not even going to be there in October to do anything with, unless some miracle happens.”

The district has been dealing with shortages for years. It delayed this year’s spring irrigation season start date by a month, and last fall it also ended deliveries a month early.

Valencia County dairy farmer Mikey Smith said local agriculture “will not exist anymore” if the district does not re-examine how to equitably distribute water and evaluate inefficient water use by some irrigators. “Some of the biggest dairies we never thought were going to go out, have all sold off,” Smith said. “They can’t afford to feed their animals.”

A longer irrigation season could have harmed New Mexico’s standing as Texas pursues U.S. Supreme Court litigation over water deliveries, said Chuck DuMars, the irrigation district’s lawyer. “It would not be good optics, if we had gone forward and continued to increase the debit,” DuMars said.

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