It has been said that farmers are the biggest players because in every growing season they have to bet that Mother Nature will give them a good hand.
Over time, farmers have lost more hands than they have won in recent years, and they are about to receive another tough draw in the form of a La Niña, a weather pattern. of the Pacific Ocean which pushes precipitation northward, causing droughts more normal in the southwest during winter and spring.
This will be the second La Niña in a row, after an exceptionally dry 2020. It’s all part of a 22-year drought in the southwest that has entered a more severe phase, depleting river flows, draining reservoirs to record levels and presenting increased challenges. to water managers and producers.
Despite advances in agronomy, hydrology, climatology, and other sciences, everyone involved in water supply is still turning to an age-old practice.
“That’s all we can do,” said Corky Herkenhoff, owner of 740-acre Indian Hill Farms in San Acacia. “Sounds pretty dark.”
Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, like Herkenhoff, who depend on the river’s water for irrigation, bear the brunt of the shortages caused by La Niña, exacerbating the effects of climate change.
These effects include thinner snowpack, more arid soil that absorbs the runoff needed to replenish streams, and more intense evaporation.
A state water manager said he has been looking after La Niñas for 20 years, but the difference now is that the reservoirs have fallen to levels not seen since the drought of the 1950s, offering no back-up supply.
“There is no water in the riverbank, so to speak, next year,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission.
Last summer, long-awaited monsoons arrived, alleviating an increasingly serious shortage of irrigation water for farmers in the central Rio Grande valley.
However, the rain was not enough to carry them to their fall plantings, and at the end of the summer, only the six indigenous pueblos, who are the first, received water for irrigation.
If the valley experiences another La Niña next year without summer storms, well, that’s a scenario no one wants to think about.
“We are right between a rock and a hard place,” Herkenhoff said.
Plan for the unforeseeable
Long-distance data confirms that a La Niña is forming.
“It is possible that the drought will worsen during the winter and spring months,” said Clay Anderson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in Albuquerque. “At this point, we could expect a level significantly lower than normal [spring] runoff. “
The data indicates stronger winds, less precipitation and above average temperatures in the coming weeks, Anderson said.
A La Niña generally decreases in the spring. After that, anyone can guess, Anderson said, noting that rain during the monsoon is one of the hardest things to predict, including where it is falling and how much.
“We are still hoping for a productive monsoon,” he said.
The US Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supplies in the West, will begin forecasting stream flow – the basis for determining its water distribution – after the snowpack forms in January.
The office will share information on what it sees with the public, including the impacts of La Niña, while planning how to manage the available water, agency spokeswoman Mary Carlson said. It will include scenarios on what low snowfall and lack of monsoons will mean for the water supply, she added.
The agency oversees the water flowing from the Colorado River basin through the federal San Juan-Chama project – a series of tunnels and diversions – and into the Rio Grande. The biggest users are the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the tribes and producers.
This is different from the natural or “native” river water that supplies most of the valley’s farmers as well as downstream users such as Texas.
Carolyn Donnelly, the agency’s hydraulic operations supervisor, said staff would work with various stakeholders to balance their needs amid the dwindling supply.
“We’re doing our best,” Donnelly said. “It’s hard to have a bad year. It’s harder to have two bad years in a row. To have three in a row is, of course, all the more of a challenge.”
Donnelly said she has yet to cancel the coming year.
The projections for 2021 were bleak, and then the monsoons came, she said. Five years ago, a late spring snowfall saved what was shaping up to be a bad year, she said.
Still, there will likely be a water shortage in San Juan-Chama next year, Donnelly said, noting that users this year have received around 65% of their maximum water allocation.
Water managers can’t plan for everything, especially so early on, and must react to conditions as they arise, Donnelly said.
“Mother Nature, the conditions we get change so quickly,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that we get exactly what we predicted.”
By most estimates, Santa Fe and Albuquerque will do well in La Niña because they have vast groundwater to draw on as a backup source.
And although the Abiquiú and Heron reservoirs are low, Santa Fe has a one-year supply of water that she can draw on when needed.
The reserve is approximately 12,500 acre-feet of water. One acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to submerge a football field in a foot of water.
The Buckman Direct diversion, built 11 years ago, has allowed Santa Fe’s groundwater to recharge so much that some wells are overflowing.
“The water pressure has built up to the point that it has risen above the ground surface,” said Bill Schneider, the city’s water resources coordinator. “These are called artesian conditions. In fact, we have to tap the wells now.”
Farmers on the front line
Producers could find themselves in the most difficult situation as low reservoirs will leave them dependent solely on snow runoff and summer rains.
A few December storms in northern New Mexico were encouraging signs that the winter may not be as dry as expected, and perhaps the area will experience a few storms per month in early spring, Mike said. Hamman, CEO and Chief Engineer of the Rio Grande Middle Conservation District.
“I’m not counting this year for the snowpack yet,” Hamman said.
Yet he recognized that hope is not a plan.
As the outgoing leader of the Conservancy District, he recommended that the board of directors distribute water to growers a few weeks earlier than normal, unlike the previous spring when the irrigation season started with 30 days of irrigation. delay.
The delay resulted in many farmers not receiving their first irrigation supply until late April or early May, Hamman said.
“It just took too long for them to get the water out,” he said. “We want to increase this so that everyone has the first watering while we still have water.”
He also suggested that the district send half of the available river water downstream to meet the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. The agreement governs water deliveries to New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
The other half of the water supply will be distributed to irrigators, but in a more measured way than in the past when it was distributed in large quantities, Hamman said. Tighter management and more efficient water delivery will be important in a drier-than-normal year, he said.
Schmidt-Petersen, the director of the stream commission, said state water managers would ask for $ 15 million in the next legislative session to bolster the district’s fallow program.
The program pays farmers not to farm, allowing their normal allocation of water to instead flow downstream to help pay off the state’s water debt to Texas, he said. -he declares.
New Mexico entered 2021 and owed Texas about 96,000 acre-feet of water, and despite the district’s best efforts, the debt increased by 25,000 acre-feet because river flows remained below. forecast during monsoons, Schmidt-Petersen said.
A more arid climate increases evaporation from the river and, at the same time, dries up the soil, which now soaks up rain like a sponge, he said. La Niña will exacerbate these conditions, Schmidt-Petersen added.
Herkenhoff, the farmer, said he would dust off a few old pumps, which have not been used for 50 years, for a well he plans to drill in anticipation of the river’s dwindling water. next year.
However, the Rio Grande Compact only allows new wells to irrigate farmland an owner owned before the late 1950s and nothing after that, Herkenhoff said. For him, that’s just 180 of his 740 acres.
It’s better than nothing in a dry year, but it’s still a huge loss, he said.
“When they were negotiating the pact, I don’t think they tried to predict what might happen,” Herkenhoff said.