Rains fill ditches, fields

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Local farmers are happy about the recent influx of rainwater filling previously dry ditches, but there’s no telling how long their luck will last.

Karen Bailey-Bowman/El Defensor Chieftain: Yellow water from the Rio Puerco fills Socorro area irrigation ditches last week. Recent rains have prompted the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to release water for area farmers.

Until the rains started in earnest last week, the irrigation situation looked grim. The district had only a fifth of the usual amount of water to distribute to irrigators. Water bankers — farmers who are farming fields where the water rights have been sold — were not able to irrigate at all. Other farmers were having to wait longer than usual to irrigate.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District stores water brought by pipeline from the San Juan River in El Vado Reservoir. El Vado water is used to boost flow in the Rio Grande during the irrigation season, which lasts from March 1 to Oct. 31. In most years, runoff from snow melt can keep the Rio Grande at adequate levels for irrigation without much need of reservoir water until midsummer, when the monsoon rains kick in. But three dry winters back to back meant the river was much lower than usual, and supplemental reservoir water ran out the first week of July instead of the usual late August or September.

Then storms sent runoff surging down the Salado and Puerco riverbeds to the Rio Rio Grande, and the district gave Socorro Division managers the go-ahead to let all Socorro farmers irrigate.

“The rain came at just the right time,” said MRGCD Socorro Division water master Lorenzo Benavidez. “We went for three weeks with very little water, running with about 20 percent of usual. We got behind with the farmers. The water bank people were really hurting.”

Farmers were worried about supply, but ditch riders trying to divvy up the scarce supply did not report any incidents, Benavidez said.

“They got upset, frustrated, but not angry,” he said.

If the rain continues for another week, all area farmers should have had a chance to water their fields. But then farmers will again be at the mercy of the monsoon.

“It worked out pretty good,” said San Antonio farmer and MRGCD board member Chris Sichler. “Now down here in the Socorro Division we have more water than we have had all summer.”

Socorro Division gets some water from excess returned to the system from Belen and Albuquerque Division ditches.

“The only ones who have (reservoir) water are the pueblos,” Benavidez said. “They have six weeks of water stored El Vado, but they don’t always use all of their water. All we have is drain water, whatever the Belen (Division) passes down to us.”

By treaty, pueblos along the Rio Grande have a “prior and paramount” right to water, which means they are first in line when the reservoirs run low.

If the monsoon continues, the irrigation season will be saved.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque reported the low pressure system last week was a fluke, but the monsoon season is far from over.

“A low pressure system is not very common, it’s more like a spring system,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Dierdre Kann at Monday’s weekly weather briefing in Albuquerque. “We still expect daily rounds of moisture. It’s going to be a decrease, but not a shut down (of the monsoon).”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hedging its bets about the monsoon between now and September, predicting “about equal chances of below-normal, normal or above-normal precipitation in much of the state.”

Lemitar hay farmer Dan Kloss is happy to see the ditches full, but he doesn’t count on river water alone for his crops.

“We’re very glad to see water in the ditches again,” he said. “We’ve kept our fields in pretty good shape, watering with our conservancy water and then with our supplemental wells. We ran them a lot. Because the wells go very much slower than the ditches, it took 20 days to water 100 acres. We raised the price of hay 50 cents to cover the extra cost.”