More fields may not be planted as part of New Mexico water body

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s top water adviser warned New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday that snow runoff is expected to be grim this spring and the arid state needs readily available tools to be able to accommodate years with particularly thin supplies.

Mike Hamman told members of a legislative committee that short-term voluntary programs, such as leaving some agricultural fields unplanted for a season or two, would help New Mexico meet its water delivery obligations to neighboring states.

Other water users in the southwestern United States are already taking action, such as leaving water in Lake Mead and sending more water to Lake Powell to ensure that bonds along the river Colorado will be respected.

In New Mexico, officials are seeking a $48 million loan to expand a fallow program along the Rio Grande in which farmers would be paid not to plant their fields.

Warmer temperatures, more evaporation, and less snow accumulation have resulted in record Rio Grande flows in recent years. One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking water and irrigation to millions of people from Colorado to Texas and Mexico.

“The unfortunate thing is that a lot of our major water users rely on surface supply and that’s the most variable supply we have,” Hamman said. “So we need to find ways to help deal with this fluctuation in surface water supplies in a fair and reasonable way.”

New Mexico is already running a deficit in its water deliveries to Texas, which has caused summer shortages for farmers and for the Rio Grande itself. Hamman said the emergency drought appropriation aims to get ahead of what appears to be a very difficult water year and reduce the deficit.

Officials estimate the program could result in the delivery of 9.7 billion gallons (44.1 billion liters) of additional water to Elephant Butte Reservoir, which stores water for Texas.

The irrigation district that manages water for farmers along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico launched its fallowing program last year with federal dollars and is seeking to triple the number of acres removed from production to 3,000 (1,200 hectares) to meet the needs of endangered species.

Hamman explained that the state wanted to encourage voluntary fallowing of an additional 15,000 acres (6,000 hectares) to meet Texas water delivery obligations. He said a fair payment would be offered to farmers to avoid competition with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy district program.

If the March stream flow forecast is poor, Hamman said he thinks the program will generate a lot of interest from farmers, as a severe drought during the summer would surely bring heavy agricultural losses in the four counties that make up the district.

He said the program would also help farmers in the lower Rio Grande, as water from the Elephant Butte Reservoir would be available the year after the two-year program.

With the goal of expanding the program statewide, Hamman said there could be benefits for the Gallup and Clovis areas, the lower Pecos River, the Rio Chama and other rural water users.

Hamman said state officials are working on a 50-year-old water body and recommendations from a water and infrastructure task force are expected in July.

“It looks bleak,” he said of the forecast. “But we have possible solutions and opportunities.”

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