A regional irrigation district has received a $2.9 million federal grant officials say may seem like a modest sum to help small, struggling growers and improve infrastructure but should have a significant impact.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District must chip in matching funds or services on the money the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded it to boost the efficiency of systems that supply water to lower-income producers — including military veterans, Hispanic growers and tribal farms — as well as to aquatic habitat for protected species.
Irrigation managers say improving the water delivery systems is vital as a warming climate causes more severe droughts that deplete river flows.
“It’s not a huge grant, but I think it will make a big difference, especially for a lot of the [smaller] farmers,” said Joaquin Baca, a district board director representing Bernalillo County. “The smaller farmers who don’t make a living at it, when water supply is short, they’re the ones that struggle the most.”
The 10,000-member district has five years to use the grant money. About 70 percent of the funds will assist small growers in irrigation upgrades, such as installing bigger pipes and headgates for a greater, freer flow of water diverted from the Rio Grande to the properties.
The rest of the money will be used to improve infrastructure — namely, to prevent stretches of the river, particularly below the Isleta Diversion Dam, from drying up and threatening the survival of the silvery minnow and other endangered species, Baca said.
A key part of that effort will be to improve the outfalls that return excess irrigation water back to the river, said Mike Hamman, the conservancy district’s CEO and chief engineer.
The district is partnering with conservation groups such as Audubon New Mexico and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which are pitching in matching funds for this portion of the grant, Hamman said.
Hamman said the district has applied for other federal grants to help get growers through the challenges of an increasingly arid state. For instance, one grant, if obtained, would enable the district to double its 200 water-measuring stations so it can more tightly manage supply, he said.
“This was just one pot of funding we were able to take advantage of to expand our service to our water users and becoming a more efficient operation in terms of ... global climate change coming at us and other unknowns,” Hamman said.
Casey Ish, the district’s water resources specialist, said helping small growers waste less water will be as important as enhanced outfalls in maintaining sufficient river flow for wildlife during peak irrigation times.
“Because we’ve made our irrigation system more efficient overall, we don’t have to divert as much water, leaving more water in the river,” Ish said.
But Glen Duggins, a district board member for Socorro County and longtime farmer, objected to small, part-time growers being first in line for what he deemed an unfair giveaway.
All growers should have an equal shot at the funding, even if they are commercially established, Duggins said, arguing all middle valley growers are losing money.
The tiny growers who have other jobs and treat farming as a side gig or hobby have no chance of becoming profitable no matter how much of a subsidy they receive, Duggins said. They’ll never become committed and self-sufficient if they are propped up financially, he said.
“If they can’t stand on their own, are we going to totally support them for the rest of time?” Duggins said.