Officials pessimistic about irrigation season

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Irrigators didn't get very good news at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District's annual spring meeting held at the Socorro County Annex on April 8.

MRGCD Water Manager David Gensler, chief water counsel Chuck du Mars, Chief Engineer Subhas Shah, Socorro District board director Chris Sichler, as well as N.M. Interstate Stream Commission Rio Grande Basin Manager Rolf Schmidt-Peterson, updated about 30 attendees on issues facing irrigators this year.

This is the fourth year in a row of very low runoff, Gensler said, but unlike 2013, the district is not starting out with a cushion of water in northern reservoirs. As of April 8, MRGCD had only 4,700 acre-feet of water in storage, an eight-day's supply. Last year, the district started the season with 10 times more reservoir water — 47,000 acre feet.

"This year we have very little in storage, meaning we may come up short again," he said. "There will be periodic shortages for all irrigators, except for those irrigating Pueblo lands. This year's going to be tough. It will be very similar to 2013, maybe slightly lower."

The MRGCD depends primarily on the natural flow of the river to supply irrigation, he said. MRGCD uses reservoirs only to supplement the river, unlike other irrigation districts, such as Elephant Butte.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service runoff report for northern New Mexico is worse than expected, he said, given the robust snow pack back in January. If no late-spring snowstorms materialize in the northern mountains, the combination of depleted reservoirs and just 29 percent of the average snow melt run off predicted to flow into the main stem Rio Grande between April and the end of May will mean "definitely not enough" to meet users' needs all season.

"There will be water for irrigation (this spring)," he said.

How the spring irrigation plays out will be determined by the weather. Runoff could show up early or late, as a consistent flow or a pulse.

Luckily, San Juan Chama Project supply forecast is pretty good.

"The San Juan Mountains have more snow, so there's a good chance we'll get our (full) allocation of San Juan-Chama Project water, about 19,000 acre-feet," he said. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one foot deep, about 326,000 gallons.

The San Juan-Chama Project diverts water from the San Juan River in northern New Mexico through a tunnel to reservoirs on the Chama River, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Municipalities and the MRGCD use water from the project.

In a best-case scenario, Gensler estimated that the district could end up with about 54,000 acre-feet in storage — 19,000 acre-feet of San Juan Chama Project water, 15,000 acre-feet of native river flow and an additional 20,000 acre-feet of water the city of Albuquerque is willing to lend the district.

The district typically starts off with between 40,000 to 80,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs, adding to it in the spring. In 2012, the district used up 103,000 acre-feet of reservoir water before running out right at the end of the season in October. In 2013, El Vado reservoir had used up all of the 47,000 acre-feet in storage by the end of June, and on July 4, the district ran out of water. Plentiful July rains and September downpours rescued district irrigators.

"The rains helped out in July," he said. "Then the crazy September rains came in, and we had plenty of water."

Federal law mandates federal agencies must take actions to keep endangered species from extinction, and that private individuals can take no action to harm these species, MRGCD legal counsel Chuck du Mars said. Ten years ago, he said the courts required MRGCD to alter its diversion of water to support the endangered silvery minnow endemic to the Rio Grande, including mandating minimum flows at certain points, including at San Acacia dam.

After much collaboration among district, federal and state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service came out with a "biological opinion" protecting the district from prosecution if flow targets weren't met as long as practices were put into place to assure the minnow's survival.

The biological opinion ended in 2013, but a de facto extension of it has been in place since then. Negotiations to renew the biological opinion were underway until the U.S. Corps of Engineers — which controls Cochiti Dam flows — backed out.

In addition, the environmental group Wild Earth Guardians has filed notice of intent to sue the Bureau of Reclamation and the USFWS this year, proposing to make them comply with the 2003 court decision guaranteeing rates of flow in the river,

"We will be back in federal court again," de Mars said. "I'm hopeful they won't sue. Unlike the past, there just isn't enough water. Compliance with flow targets will drastically affect the district."

This season, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has plans to "engineer some kind of spawning response for the fish" by releasing some of its water from Cochiti Dam in early May in cooperation with U. S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gensler said. They will not be using any MRGCD water.

The water bank is a system allowing irrigation on property lacking water rights — the "extra" water is made available because other lands with valid water rights have had changes made that prevent irrigation or have abandoned irrigating.

To clear up some misuses, water bank users now have to specify exactly which parcels of land they wish to irrigate for the entire season, Du Mars said. No other parcels may be watered that year.

"(Water bank users) can't vary from what they decide," Du Mars said. "You have to submit a map."

This year, ditch riders will give their area water bank users a five-day advance notice when water bank irrigation is to be curtailed. Gensler said all the ditch riders now know who's on the water bank. The district's website also features a stoplight indicating when curtailment is in effect. When local conditions allow, such as storms, curtailments may be lifted in a specific division; irrigators are urged to keep in touch with their ditch riders.

Scofflaws will be fined, du Mars said. Repeat offenders will be cut off from irrigating for the rest of the season.

New Mexico is currently being sued by Texas for violations allegedly made to the Rio Grande Compact, a 1938 agreement made between the two states for sharing Rio Grande Project water, which provides irrigation to about 178,000 acres and includes Elephant Butte and Caballo dams, six smaller diversion dams, 139 miles of canals, 457 miles of laterals, 465 miles of drains and a hydroelectric power plant in New Mexico and Texas. The Rio Grande Compact specifies the amount of surface water each state can take from the river.

Texas claims that New Mexicans using shallow irrigation wells below Elephant Butte Reservoir are taking water illegally because the groundwater is hydrologically connected to the river, said Rolf Schmidt-Peterson, of the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission.

The outcome of the litigation is important, Du Mars said, because if Texas prevails, water use farther upstream may be scrutinized, possibly affecting irrigation practices in the middle Rio Grande.

"There's only one place left to go to get more water — upstream," he said. "There'll be more and more scrutiny."

The outcome of the lawsuit probably won't be resolved until late summer.

The initial planning phase of a project to construct a new syphon to deliver return water from the east side of the Belen Division to the Socorro Division is about 60 percent complete, MRGCD Chief Engineer Subhas Shah said. Construction can go forward until the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation completes actions required by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. The syphon will add to existing Unit 7 Drain inflows.

"The Bureau is dragging its feet," Shah said. "It's holding it up."