Irrigators in Northern New Mexico are feeling the effects of climate change.
Manuel Trujillo, who gardens and farms in Ensenada, called this year’s growing season “horrible,” because of drought stemming in part from a lack of snowpack.
Miguel Vigil, mayordomo of the Salazar Acequia just north of Española, said the ground has been parched and cracked and that it has been one of the worst years he has seen for water availability.
A couple weeks ago he learned from the Office of the State Engineer that the flow of the Rio Chama at a gauge point at La Puente was not even half of the typical flow of the Salazar Acequia.
“I see these people that have these gardens and they’re depending on them for their kids and stuff like that,” he said. “When the water’s dropped that low, it’s just very, very sad for them. There’s a possibility that they would lose all this stuff that they’ve worked so hard to nurture and grow and everything else.”
Though the state started out with “promising” levels of snowpack early in the year, they diminished in the spring due to lack of storms and high temperatures, said state climatologist Dave DuBois.
The snow sublimated because of the heat, going from a solid to a vapor without first passing through the liquid stage.
“Get warm temperatures, less snow, less water coming down, less water to deliver, less water in the reservoirs, and we’re dealing with that right now,” he said.
A map from the National Integrated Drought Information System shows the northern half of Rio Arriba to be in an extreme drought, with major crop or pasture losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions, while the southern half is in a severe drought, with crop or pasture loss likely and water shortages common.
Cycles of drought would be occurring without any long-term shift in the climate, but global climate warming amplifies the effects, leading to less snowpack and higher temperatures in droughts, DuBois said.
“Some of the drivers are due to the natural cycles, like El Niño and La Niña, but on top of that, there’s a climate change kind of a multiplier,” he said.
Water levels throughout Northern New Mexico are “tremendously low,” in some cases lower than they have been in years, said New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen.
As of Tuesday, Abiquiú Dam was storing about 30 percent of its full capacity, while El Vado was storing less than 25 percent.
“Like many reservoirs in the West where drought is ongoing, it’s lower than we want to see it,” wrote Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Mary Carlson, about the water level at El Vado.
Although the levels of El Vado have been lower in past years, the current water level is about 24 feet below the 20-year average, she wrote.
Acequia associations in the north have been working with conservancy districts and pueblos further south to ensure as much as possible that whoever needs water can have some, Schmidt-Petersen said.
“It’s a very tight water operation that’s going on, but we’re looking for every opportunity that’s out there to identify where there’s some potential real economic issue or other that would be a crisis and try to work with the different parties to address this,” Schmidt-Petersen said.
He described the situation as “dire” but said that people have been collaborating well to share the resource.
“What we do here in New Mexico and the way we do it is unique, and it’s people trying to help other people and the environment,” he said.
Acequias flowing from the Rio Chama are now running only a few days each week, on a rotating schedule.
“The types of calls that we get really vary, but all of them have the same theme, that there isn’t enough water to go around,” said New Mexico Acequia Association Executive Director Paula Garcia about calls from people who depend on the Rio Chama to irrigate.
Because of long-standing agreements, those acequias are allowed to use “native water” from the Rio Chama–water that is understood to originate in New Mexico–but not “imported water”–which originates elsewhere.
At a particular level of flow, the water in the Rio Chama is considered only “imported,” so the acequias cannot use it.
“They just look at the Rio Chama going full from bank to bank, but they can’t touch that water because it’s not native water,” Trujillo said.
So even though acequias and pueblos have rights to water based on the Western water law system of prior appropriation, whereby the first person to use a quantity of water from a water source has future rights to that quantity of water, conservation districts and urban areas downstream end up having priority on the water, Garcia said.
“This is the first time that I’m aware of where (Office of the State Engineer Acequia Liaison Brian Gallegos) had to go to Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and say, ‘There’s no water available for you on the Rio Chama,’ even though there’s 600 cubic feet per second passing,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “It is just that dry in the natural system. It’s just a really bad situation.”
Because of the limited water schedules the acequias must now operate on, farmers’ crops are withering.
“Now that the water’s been off, we noticed everything’s started to dry up a lot faster,” said Salazar Acequia Parciante Leonard Valerio. “If you don’t irrigate it after a couple days it starts wilting, and we’re worried we’re going to lose all our efforts in putting up a garden because there’s no water.”
The rains of the past week have been helping, Vigil said.
With them, however, comes the threat of flash flooding, which can lead to silt clogging acequias and destroying crops, Garcia said.
“When it’s not one extreme, it’s another,” Vigil said.
But, he said, there is nothing else to do but pray for rain.