More bleak news for Rio Grande irrigators

Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur’s special coverage of the southern New Mexico borderland is made possible in part by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

Dependent on melting snowpack in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico for much of their water, Rio Grande irrigators in the Paso del Norte borderland are in for more bad news.

In their just-released water supply forecast for New Mexico, the National Weather Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service noted that spring runoff forecasts for the Rio Grande into New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir are only 21 percent of normal flows. The large man-made lake supplies water to farmers in southern New Mexico, west Texas and the Juarez Valley in Mexico.

The latest news followed April’s water supply outlook that gauged Elephant Butte storage at 385,800 acre-feet of water in comparison with 466,400 acre-feet at the same time in 2011.

For the second year in a row, irrigators below the gates of Elephant Butte are up against the reality of very limited water from the Rio Grande, forcing them to rely on expensive groundwater pumping. The word has gone out to expect only one Rio Grande water delivery this year, just as in 2011.

Last month, the Juarez Valley and Lower El Paso Valley received their water while the Hatch Valley, the farming belt closet to Elephant Butte, was delivered its supply in recent days. According to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District website, irrigators in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley near Las Cruces south to the Texas border should expect their water on May 15.

The May 2012 Water Supply Forecast for New Mexico cited unseasonal temperatures for the early loss of a snowpack that could have benefited farmers later in the growing season.

“Warmer than normal temperatures combined with a generally dry airmass and our desiccating spring winds to sublimate and prematurely melt much of the remaining high mountain snowpack during April,” the National Weather Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service said in a news release. “The Rio Grande Basin snowpack water content average was 84 percent of normal as of the first of March 2012, but several warm dry periods in March and April overwhelmed the few winter-like storms, resulting in the early demise of the high mountain snowpack,” the two agencies stated.

Under the terms of a 1906 agreement between Mexico and the United States. irrigators in the Juarez Valley are annually entitled to 60,000 acre-feet of water, or about 11 percent of the Rio Grande water that is usually stored in Elephant Butte and the smaller Caballo Reservoir immediately below it, but will likely get far less this year because of climatic conditions.

Edward Drusina,  U.S. commissioner for the International Boundary and Water Commission, the federal agency that oversees Mexico water deliveries, told Frontera NorteSur that the April water delivery to the Juarez Valley was proportionally reduced in accordance with the terms of the 1906 Convention, which  includes a stipulation for drought times.

Now with a dismal spring runoff forecast , irrigators potentially have one last hope-a good monsoon season later in the summer. “If the July and August rainy season provides a seasonal amount of rainfall, which we all want, the Bureau would do a water calculation of what is available,” Drusina said.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American
and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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