Water shortage causing ripple effect

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The irrigation ditches are almost empty this week, creating stress for everyone connected with farming.

“Right now, it’s not very good. We had rain Thursday in Socorro, but the system didn’t get anything out of it,” said Lorenzo Benavidez, water master for the Socorro Division of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “We’re real low. It’s a tough time right now. We haven’t got much water coming down from up north. We’re trying to spread it out equally.”

For the rest of the irrigation season, the MRGCD will divert water from Rio Grande and Unit 7 drain water, which is the water that is left over from irrigation in the Belen area, he said.

That means farmers have to depend mostly on rain up north that flows into the Rio Grande to water their fields until the season ends Oct. 31.

Farmers like to plant fall crops, he said, but this year, the MRGCD can’t guarantee enough water to keep new seedlings alive.

“Once you plant, you need to come back in 10 days to water the new seed,” he said. “We’re lucky to get water in two or even three weeks. We advise farmers to hold off on planting, but some are planting again anyway.”

Farmers are having to use irrigation wells, he said.

Linda Rosales, who farms 300 acres of chile and hay with her husband, Mario, do not have a well, but at the moment, her crops are surviving.

“I got to water my chile last week, but so far, nothing is available yet for the hay,” Rosales said. “This morning, there were 94 cubic feet per second coming through the system thanks to Unit 7 drain water.”

About 200 cfs is normal, and irrigators can get by with even 150 cfs, she said.

There is some water from upstream storage reservoirs being released into the river to supply six northern pueblos, according to the MRGCD website.

It’s not enough to make much difference here in Socorro, according MRGCD public relations officer Tom Thorpe.

The amount of water released is supposed to be just enough for the pueblo irrigators to water, so not much will be returned to the river for other farmers to use, he said.

“Prior and paramount water is stored water that belongs to the pueblos,” Thorpe said. “When released, it is to be used only by pueblo irrigators. What is left is put back into the river for other irrigators.”

Despite the shortage, Thorpe does not foresee MRGCD curtailing water to water bank users this season.

“This year, we are probably not going to cut off water bank users,” he said.

“Water bank users are those who have sold their water rights. They buy water from us,” he said. “The water bank is an option. There is a $100 per year single fee, a $50 per acre charge to lease water, and a $28 per acre service fee.”

The water bank is meant for the hobby farmer with only a few acres to water, such as a large garden or a small orchard, he said. It ends up costing about $78 per acre per year to lease water from the water bank, excluding the $100 one-time fee.

Irrigators who have sold their water rights but have not signed up for the water bank are not legally permitted to water, he said.

They can pump water from state permitted wells, but they cannot draw water from ditches.

The MRGCD depends on ditch riders and citizens to report illegal irrigation.

“If it’s brought to our attention, we will go and speak to the irrigator,” he said. “If it continues, we will take further action.”

Ditch riders know which people have irrigation rights, but sometimes people will water when they are not supposed to, he said.

Whether the MRGCD will cut back on water bank users next year will depend upon Mother Nature.

“We will address the issue next year when we get into the season,” he said. “It depends on the snow pack and early season rains.”

This past winter, snow pack was 85 percent of normal, but because the soil was so dry, not much of that run off made it into the river, so MRGCD had to dip into stored water far earlier than usual.

“In a normal year, we won’t get into stored water until mid-August,” he said. “This year, we started in mid-June. We will get to store about 30,000 acre feet of water that is owed to us next year.”

Making up the difference needed to supply farmers will depend on the weather.

MRGCD used 100,00 acre feet of stored water before it ran out in August, he said, so unless the weather cooperates, next year will be no better,

Farmers’ uncertainty about water supply has affected businesses that sell agricultural supplies.

El Air Ag Supply in Lemitar which sells seed and agricultural chemicals has seen a 50 percent decrease in sales this August compared to last year, said Bonnie Durkin, office manager.

“We had a good spring, but now we’re watching the sales graphs go downhill,” Durkin said. “Our sales now are one half compared to 2011. September doesn’t took too promising either. That’s when farmers plant winter wheat and alfalfa, but guys are spooked about planting this year.”