Farmer Matt Romero has grown salad greens and other crops on his small farms in Dixon and Alcalde for 18 years.
He doesn’t have far to travel to see a stark reminder of the ongoing drought affecting New Mexico and parts of the West when he looks over the bridge that crosses Embudo Creek just outside his Dixon home.
“There is no water at that bridge and there has been no water for a month,” said Romero, who sells his crops to restaurants and at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.
Donald Martinez, Rio Arriba County’s agricultural agent, is in touch with farmers around the county and said farmers and acequia communities have to be resourceful and talk to one another so farms get their water shares. Rio Arriba County has many small-scale vegetable, fruit and hay farmers, and the story is the same throughout the area for those who need water to grow crops: The reports of rivers drying up in Central New Mexico send shivers through those who see those same stream flows weakening in the north.
The drought, if it continues, “could be devastating,” Martinez said. “This is the lowest we have seen our snowpack for irrigation.”
In Velarde, Danny Farrar has about 10 acres with a small orchard that produces cherries, peaches and apples, and some vegetables. The water he needs to sustain his crops arrives via an acequia from the Rio Grande.
“The river should be in runoff, but it’s really, really low,” Farrar said. “Old-timers say they have never seen the Rio Grande completely dry up, but it might.”
On May 16, the Rio Grande flow at Embudo was measured at 340 cubic feet per second — compared with 3,390 cfs on the same date last year, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. The worst year on record measured on the same date and location was 184 cfs in 2002.
“Abnormal dryness or drought” is affecting the entire population of New Mexico, according to the federal National Integrated Drought Information System. More than 63 percent of the state is listed as being in “extreme” drought with over 20 percent in “exceptional” category, including big swaths of north. No area of the state has been unaffected by drought.
Romero, who gets his water through the Embudo Valley’s Acequia del Llano, said the bleak situation has forced farmers to take unusual steps.
“We were rationing water already in the springtime,” Romero said.
The water in the valley is shared with six other acequias and has been parceled so that farmers alternate — with some getting no water while others receive it. The process is then reversed, Romero said.
“We are all going to experience devastating crop losses if we don’t get any moisture,” Romero said.
With the exception of planting some tomatoes and rhubarb, a perennial, Romero has pretty much pulled the plug on his Dixon acreage while still farming two plots in Alcalde with water from the Rio Grande, even while it remains extremely low.
“We have water once a week for 2½ hours, but that’s not enough to keep it going [in Dixon],” Romero said.
“You can almost walk across it. … I am willing to bet it’s as low as it’s ever been,” said Romero of the Rio Grande, the state’s main vein of water.
Farmers are negotiating water delivery schedules, and some are opting not to irrigate or to be selective in their crop choices, said Olivia Romo, communications and outreach director for the New Mexico Acequia Association. The association represents 680 acequias statewide.
“It’s a very tough year,” she said. “We are learning how to use what we have and be more effective with irrigation.”
Some farmers are planting drought-tolerant crops, such as beans, that don’t need as much water. “That’s what a lot of farmers are focusing on this year,” Romo said.
Mayordomos, the heads of the acequias, are working out schedules with their members. “The mayordomo might tell you that you have an hour [to irrigate] at 2 in the morning and you better be ready,” Romo said.
The story is the same in other areas.
Michael “Mick” Trujillo uses acequia water to irrigate his grass and alfalfa pastures in the Abiquiú/Canjilon area. The crops are used to feed livestock. The amount the acequia receives is metered by the state and limited, and the members of his acequia have been asked to come up with a plan for curtailment.
The bottom line for drought-plagued farmers is expected to soon intersect where the greens meet the greenbacks, said Romero.
“Farmers are going to realize their crops are a little more valuable this year,” Romero said.
Will prices rise? “They have to, there is really no other direction for them to go,” he said.
Dixon garlic farmer Stan Crawford said he expects to raise prices on his four varieties of the pungent bulb from $12 a pound to $16. He said a higher price “would help raise the bottom line a little bit.”
Crawford has farmed his 3 acres since 1977 and also sells at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. He has an acre in garlic and one-eighth of an acre in shallots. Crawford is able to use acequia water one day a week for two hours. His garlic “is doing OK, but not looking as good as usual,” he said.
The hot months of June and July mean greater evaporation for farmers with little water recharge.
“There’s not snow in the mountains anymore and no runoff has occurred,” Romero said.
Agricultural agent Martinez recommended that farmers irrigate in the early morning and evenings to lesson evaporation and “use some commonsense practices and be real water conscious.”
Some farmers in the area have the option of using groundwater and drawing down aquifers, but is “not really an issue yet,” Martinez said, adding that flood irrigating, the main method farmers use, charges aquifers.
The rivers and acequias charge the wells, which are shallow in Rio Arriba County, and “when acequias and rivers run low, a farmer will struggle to get his crop watered,” Martinez said. “Having a well is great, but many don’t have that luxury.”
Romero does not have a well on his Alcalde farm and said there are few wells suitable for agricultural use in Northern New Mexico. In Alcalde, “we run 100 percent off the acequia,” he said. “There just isn’t enough [water] to go around this year.”
Farming is a hard enough without Mother Nature piling on, Romero said. “We are taking a minimal approach [to planting] … because we don’t need the added stress.”
“We have seen some bad years — 1996 and 2002,” Martinez said. “But this one is a lot harsher.”