Rio Grande irrigation district weighs staggered start

Farmer Nathan Couevas waters a compost bin at Sublime Pastures farm in Tomé. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is considering staggering the start of the 2022 irrigation season to help meet interstate water delivery needs but also avoid a delay for the entire district. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is considering staggering the start of the 2022 irrigation season to deal with water supply constraints.

The district manages irrigation from Cochiti Dam to Bosque del Apache.

Mike Hamman, who will retire Jan. 1 as the district CEO and chief engineer to become New Mexico’s state water consultant, said an adapted season could help keep more water in the river and also meet local irrigation demand, without the need for a monthlong delay that farmers saw in spring 2021.

The season also ended a month early in October because of scarce water supply and the growing water debt.

“It’s too darn difficult to squeeze the farmers on both ends of the season,” Hamman said.

New Mexico’s water debt to downstream users under the Rio Grande Compact is estimated to be nearly 36 billion gallons.

That deficit restricts how much water the district can store in El Vado Reservoir for its own use.

New Mexico’s snowpack and runoff may also suffer from a forecasted La Niña winter, which is typically drier and warmer.

Farmers planting seeds and winter crops in the district’s Socorro division would receive water deliveries as soon as March 21 under the district’s proposed plan.

Those deliveries would expand into the Belen division on March 28, and to the Albuquerque and Cochiti reaches in April as the river gets a boost from spring runoff.

The district will start scheduling irrigation for mature crops in early April until all fields receive the first irrigation, then water will be delivered on a rotational schedule.

“It’s the only way we can operate fairly when we have a tight water supply,” Hamman said.

Oct. 15 would be the tentative irrigation shutoff date.

Los Chavez alfalfa farmer Michael Lundmark said he worries that some producers could be “getting shortchanged by those who are inefficient in their watering.”

“If I put in alfalfa seeds – which are going for near $8 a pound now – if I put in an alfalfa field, am I going to be able to get that second and third watering to establish it to get it through the year?” Lundmark said.

The district board will vote on the 2022 irrigation season plan at its Jan. 10 meeting.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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