Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Elephant Butte Irrigation District projects another tough water year

LAS CRUCES – Drought conditions and low snowpack runoff will likely make for another “challenging” water distribution season for the lower Rio Grande in 2022, according to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

The agency receives and distributes river water for the Rio Grande Project, which serves New Mexico, west Texas and Mexico’s Juárez Valley.

Based on weather data so far in 2022, EBID manager Gary Esslinger said it appeared there would be another year of low storage levels in the Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs.

As of March 20, the Elephant Butte reservoir was at 11.7 percent of its capacity, and even that is an improvement from this time last year when it dipped below 10 percent.

“We need some heavy snowstorms to linger in March and even April to catch us up,” Esslinger said.

New Mexico State Climatologist David DuBois said that isn’t looking likely.

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A map by the US Drought Monitor project shows nearly all of New Mexico in conditions of moderate, severe, extreme or exceptional drought as of March 15, 2022. The small swath of yellow in Doña Ana and Otero counties refers to

As of Tuesday’s meeting of the New Mexico Drought Monitoring Working Group, Dubois said that despite some rainfall during the past week, “the basic outlook is for the drought to continue at least through the rest of spring.”

“The Colorado snow is right around the average,” he continued, “but the further you go south, the drier you get.”

Another fall and winter under La Niña weather patterns has kept the southern US under dry and warm conditions, reducing the accumulated snowpack needed to recharge river streams as storms are pushed northward.

Less Rio Grande water running downstream from Colorado through New Mexico means less water to be allotted to the region’s farmers in summer and likely another low-level year at the Elephant Butte reservoir, which also sustains a recreational tourist economy in the spring and summer.

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Esslinger said EBID is expecting the 2022 irrigation season to open on June 1 and run into the first week of July, with low 4-inch allotment for the second year in a row unless conditions improve.

Water distribution from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District's Mesilla lateral canal in Las Cruces, NM on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

He noted, however, that more will be known at the end of the winter snowpack season in April, when EBID will make its initial allocation estimate.

The smaller allotment and short time frame puts more pressure on farmers to submit their water orders and plan for summer, including decisions about reducing crops or pumping groundwater.

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The driest water year in recent memory is 2013, which saw an allotment of 3.5 inches with water released from Caballo Dam for 47 days, as well as the 4-inch allotments of 2011 and 2021.

Dubois said projections put the odds “scary close” as to whether a third consecutive La Niña year was in the making.

“We’re far behind in terms of precipitation and what we expect for the winter season,” he said. “We had a nice break with the cooler temperatures in January and February, but December was really warm. That sucked a lot of moisture out of soils.”

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

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