Shrinking Colorado River Basin Key to New Mexico Agriculture

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Glen Duggins, who grows chili, alfalfa and vegetables, found himself praying for rain in June and feeling grateful for water from the Colorado River Basin.

A La Nina weather pattern had brought about an unusually dry winter and spring, depleting the Rio Grande, the main source of water allowing farmers to irrigate about 60,000 acres in this region of New Mexico.

The water that carried them during the last arid weeks before the rains arrived was diverted from the Colorado River basin by a federal system of tunnels and dams known as the San Juan-Chama project. This water merges with the Rio Grande to increase the regional supply.

“It got us through the hump and ushered us into the monsoon season,” said Duggins, who owns a 400-acre farm in Lemitar, a hamlet in the middle Rio Grande Valley.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River in the run up to the 100th anniversary of the historic Colorado River Compact. The Associated Press, Colorado Sun, Albuquerque Journal, Salt Lake Tribune, Arizona Daily Star, Nevada Independent and Santa Fe New Mexican are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.


San Juan-Chama accounts for most of the water that New Mexico receives from the Colorado River Basin. Some historical users, such as Navajo Nation farmers, divert water separately from the federal system.

Although the basin provides only about 10 percent of New Mexico’s total water supply, how that water is used is critical, raising concerns about how climate change and increasing of demand are diminishing the Colorado River and prompting the seven basin states to further reduce consumption.

New Mexico draws 4 million acre feet of water every year, half from various rivers and half from the ground — with about 400,000 feet of surface water coming from the basin, Rolf Schmidt-Peterson said. , director of the Interstate Stream Commission.

One foot of an acre equals about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two or three households a year.

The United States Bureau of Reclamation annually allocates water from San Juan-Chama to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Middle Valley irrigators and three native users – Jicarilla Apache Nation, Taos Pueblo and Ohkay Owingeh.

New Mexico is one of four states in the upper basin and is allocated 11.25% of the available water per year within this group under a 1948 agreement.

New Mexico is required to send a certain amount of water downstream, primarily to the San Juan River, which empties into the Navajo Reservoir and eventually into Lake Powell. The Reclamation Bureau diverts the remaining water upstream to cover the New Mexico allotment.

The state’s share remains unchanged despite growing demand.

A pipeline is currently being installed called the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project. Scheduled to be completed in three years, it will divert approximately 37,000 acre feet from the San Juan to provide drinking water to parts of the Navajo and Jicarilla Nations as well as Gallup.

At the same time, the Pojoaque Regional Water Supply System is being built and will supply 4,000 acres of San Juan-Chama water to four native pueblos by the end of the decade.

By August, users in New Mexico had received just over half of their maximum allocation. Discounts are distributed evenly, so one user does not receive a higher percentage than another.

Over the past decade, as the drought dragged on, the bureau only made a full allocation in the relatively wet years of 2013, 2017 and 2019. The trend is expected to continue as the climate warms. and becomes drier, reducing snow accumulations, increasing evaporation and drying soils that absorb runoff.

“Aridification will likely reduce inflow to the San Juan-Chama project,” said Carolyn Donnelly, the office’s water operations supervisor. “This year we saw a much higher influx of rain for the project, but that did not compensate for below average snowfall.”

The head of the regional irrigation district said that although this water represents only a small part of what farmers in the middle valley use, it is crucial during the dry periods of the growing season, such as at the beginning of the summer.

“We used every part of that San Juan-Chama water before the rains,” said Jason Casuga, CEO and Chief District Engineer of Middle Rio Grande Conservancy.

Getting less and less water is a troublesome trend, Casuga said. Being shorted on water can cause problems later in the season if the rains dissipate because there is no reserve to draw on, Casuga said.

Schmidt-Petersen said as haggling over Colorado River water continues, particularly between upper and lower basin states, the priority is to be civil in finding strategies to secure future water supplies for all.

“We recognize that there are differences within the basin, and as supply pressure increases, tensions increase and cooperation becomes even more difficult,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “We are committed to protecting New Mexico’s water supply while respecting interstate agreements and the law of the river generally.”

Santa Fe and Albuquerque built treatment plants more than a decade ago to divert San Juan-Chama water from the Rio Grande and relieve pressure on their wells — and now the cities have both river and underground to tap, said Reed Benson, a water law professor at the University of New Mexico.

Both cities have made efforts to conserve water, with per capita use declining as their populations grew, Benson said. Albuquerque has programs in place such as paying residents to remove their lawns, he said.

Schmidt-Petersen finds a similar trend among irrigators: overall water use has declined even as the number of farmers has increased.

The upper basin states have submitted a five-point water conservation plan to the bureau to help meet the authorities’ demand for reduced consumption. It’s unclear how much additional water the upper basin states, including New Mexico, can give up, he said.

“Much more? Probably not,” he said. “But we will try to do our part.”

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