Farmers will have to wait a month longer this year to irrigate crops, thanks to the persistent drought depleting available water.
Not only is the Rio Grande running low, but regional reservoirs have dipped to their most meager levels in years, according to federal data.
The severely diminished supply has prompted the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to hold off on providing irrigation water to farmers until April, creating what one official described as an exceptionally short growing season.
“It’s a tough situation,” said David Gensler, hydrologist for the conservancy district. “It’s been developing slowly over many years. We just keep drawing losing hands, climate-wise.”
One farmer said the delay in getting water will force him to plant crops in hotter weather.
“We have to plant way later and it will already be getting hot, and the heat and the sun will bake those plants germinating,” said Paul Skrak, owner of 55-acre Hidalgo Farms near Peña Blanca. “By July, it’s 100 degrees here in the Peña Blanca Valley, so it’ll kill some plants that can’t tolerate it. And others, it’ll stunt their growth.”
The district must put off supplying water to farmers so it can shore up reservoirs to repay some of the hefty debt it owes Texas under the Rio Grande Compact, Gensler said, referring to a multistate water-sharing agreement.
New Mexico owes Texas almost 100,000 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, roughly enough to supply a four-person household for a year.
This growing season, officials will be unable to release water from depleted reservoirs to boost river flows, Gensler said. And whatever water builds up in these storage areas must be retained to later funnel to Elephant Butte Reservoir, the main hub supplying water to southwest Texas.
Part of the debt owed to Texas is for 36,000 acre-feet of water that the state released during last year’s drought to help New Mexico farmers irrigate.
“I don’t think that we can expect a whole lot this year,” Gensler said
The five main reservoirs on the Rio Grande and Chama River — Heron, El Vado, Abiquiú, Elephant Butte and Caballo — are at a combined 7 percent of capacity in 2021, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency that assists growers.
By comparison, the reservoirs were at 17 percent in 2018 and 13 percent in 2013, both drought years.
Another weak winter snowpack is causing river levels to fall and almost all reservoirs to be extremely depleted, said Randall Hergert, National Weather Service meteorologist in Albuquerque.
“A lot of them are pretty pitiful,” Hergert said of the reservoirs.
The winter of 2019 provided a decent snowpack and runoff that was slightly above normal, he said, but that turned out to be one wet spell in a long, dry stretch.
“One good season isn’t enough to refill a reservoir,” Hergert said. “We have to have several good ones in a row.”
The region has had several years of below-normal snowpack, with much of the runoff being absorbed into the soil rather than boosting river levels, he said.
La Niña is compounding the drought, Hergert said, referring to an ocean cooling event that reduces evaporation and results in even drier conditions in the Southwest.
The good news, he said, is that La Niña is expected to abate during the summer, which could lead to a better monsoon than last year’s almost nonexistent one.
A Santa Fe environmental group said postponing irrigation for a month will help prevent the Rio Grande from dropping so low as to imperil the silvery minnow, which has been listed as endangered since 1994.
“Where things are right now, this is a definite benefit for the ecological health of the river and the health of the silvery minnow,” said Tricia Snyder, Rio Grande campaigner for WildEarth Guardians.
Spring peak river flows are vital to the minnow, signaling it’s time for them to spawn, Snyder said.
It’s important to consider plants and wildlife that depend on the river as well as human communities; otherwise, the ecosystem could be permanently damaged, she said.
“This is going to be a tough summer,” Snyder said. “And unfortunately with climate change projections — the way that they’re looking for New Mexico — we’re going to be in for tough summers for the foreseeable future.”
Skrak said he is fortunate he doesn’t subsist solely on farming and has other ways to make money, such as construction.
“But the farmers that live off what they grow, it’ll be terrible for them,” he said. “Just terrible.”
Matt Dahlseid contributed to this report.