Western Rivers Face Pinch as Another Dry Year Takes Shape

By Susan Montoya Bryan / AP News.

As several states in the American West face intense drought, it’s shaping up to be a very difficult year for New Mexico farmers because of limited irrigation supplies, with some saying conditions haven’t been this dire since the 1950s.

Snowpack and precipitation are below average, spring runoff is trailing, and New Mexico comes in last among nearly a dozen Western states for dismal reservoir storage levels. Along the Rio Grande, New Mexico’s largest reservoir stands at less than 11% capacity, meaning the irrigation season for farmers in the southern part of the state will likely start late and include only small allotments.

Further north, managers with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District are in a position not seen in decades. There’s no extra water in the reservoirs and interstate water-sharing agreements are restricting both storage and releases from upstream reservoirs since New Mexico has fallen short of what it owes Texas.

The district was forced to wait a month — until April 1 — to start its irrigation season due to the meager supplies. Farmers were encouraged to consider resting their fields given that demand will surely outpace supply, but many are used to the risk that comes with planting each season so just a fraction of the acres throughout the Middle Rio Grande valley have been fallowed.

Feast or famine — it’s the way of life in the Rio Grande basin.

The lack of water is the culmination of a sequence of unfortunate spring runoffs over recent years, not just a single year, said David Gensler, water operations manager for the conservancy district.

“We continue to be dealt losing hands, hydrologically speaking. We’ve played them for all they were worth, but we just continue to draw bad cards,” he said, noting that water managers could not have done anything differently to get a positive outcome.

Statewide, more than half of New Mexico is dealing with exceptional drought — the worst category. A year ago, there was no exceptional or even extreme drought in the state.

Utah and Arizona are worse off in terms of drought severity, and Nevada is not far behind. California also appears to be in the midst of another drought.

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