Irrigation to start this Saturday

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Once again, as it has since 1923, water is flowing in Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District ditches. This year’s season is shaping up to be déjà vu all over again, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. Like last year at this time, how much irrigation water will be available this season is anyone’s guess.

But for now, Socorro Division main canals are full, and laterals and other smaller ditches will be filled later in the week, according to Socorro Division supervisor Lorenzo Benavidez.

“We should have everything full by March 8, barring debris jams,” he said. “We’re going to start irrigation (then). We’re not going to depend on natural flow until the run-off starts. All we got is 4,000 acre feet in storage, two days’ worth of water.”

How the water supply picture shapes up depends on Mother Nature.

“At present the MRGCD has very little water in storage,” MRGCD hydrologist David Gensler said. “We expect to acquire additional storage at El Vado (reservoir) this spring, but this is highly dependent on the snow pack and runoff. If the snow pack allows, we may store as much as 42,000 acre feet, in addition to MRGCD’s 21,000 acre feet annual allocation of San Juan-Chama (Project) water. This is not a large amount of water, but more than we had last year and should get us through the season reasonably well.”

An acre foot is the volume of water needed to cover one acre of land one foot deep, about 326,000 gallons.

Even though recent storms have increased the snow pack, the actual run-off flow data look bleak.

“At present forecasted flows are for little less than 50 per cent of average, not good news for New Mexico in general, and water users in particular,” he said. “However there is always the chance for heavy spring snows in March, April, and even May which can quickly improve the situation.”

Benavidez thinks this year’s mountain snow storms are a good sign.

“The San Juan’s 80 percent of normal. Late storms in March in April will help us quite a bit,” he said.

Snow pack in the San Juan Mountains provides run off for both the San Juan River and Rio Grande, both of which provide water for New Mexico farmers and municipalities, as well as the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

But things aren’t looking 100 percent great, especially since the National Weather Service thinks the El Niño weather pattern — a much-hoped-for phenomenon that would increase the chances of precipitation in the American Southwest — may fail to materialize this spring.

“If things continue as they have been, this will be the fourth successive year of substantially reduced snow pack and river flows,” Gensler said.

MRGCD Socorro Division board member Chris Sichler plans to schedule an informational meeting for irrigators in early April.

“The district is planning an informational meeting in Socorro,” he said. “March is the big snow month, so we’re waiting to see what happens. Like last year, we’ll go over the district’s policies. The Interstream Stream Commission may come out to explain how the compacts work and the legal action by the Wild Earth Guardians.”

The Wild Earth Guardians has sued federal agencies and the state of Colorado for failing to provide enough water in the Rio Grande for the minnow, he said. In the meantime, Sichler is running his supplemental wells to irrigate his farm’s chile fields.

“This year, it’s not possible to grow chile or row crops without a well,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the MRGCD website was notifying water bank irrigators – those farming land without water rights — that they will be cut off from irrigating within the week.