MRGCD discusses water outlook


More than 100 local farmers and ranchers packed the conference room at the Belen Public Library to hear the latest water outlook from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District last week.

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: At a low point in this irrigation season, the Otero Drain in the village of Bosque Farms provides an ample feeding ground for local ducks and other water fowl.

The topics included water availability, the Endangered Species Act, levee update for Belen and Socorro, the water bank and MRGCD’s water distribution policy.

Panelists included Subhas Shah, chief engineer, hydrologist David Gensler, board directors Eugene Abeita, Johnny Paiz and Chris Sichler, as well as MRGCD’s attorney Charles “Chuck” DuMars.

One of the issues brought up by a few different audience members was illegal irrigation. Several people said there are individuals who have sold their water rights, but still take irrigation water without having a water lease.

They were urged to report to the police or sheriff anyone they witness irrigating illegally.

People buying land should not assume water rights come with the property, said DuMars.

Other issues ranged from weeds in the irrigation ditches to a frustrating lack of timeliness of water arrival, and problems with new ditch riders.

Ultimately, the biggest threat is total depletion of irrigation water.

“We’ll probably get through April and May alright,” Gensler said. “But once we get into June, it’s just anybody’s guess how long that water will last, and at what point we’ll have to start dipping into our storage.”

Depending on the weather, there is always the possibility that things might turn around, but this year there is roughly 25 percent of what was needed to get through the season last year.

The Middle Rio Grande Valley has actually been pretty lucky, he said, because everywhere else in the state it’s been tough.

“Carlsbad has been running out of water for the last two years. It came out (last Wednesday) they’ve initiated a priorities call,” he said. “In the north part of the state, some of the acequias have experienced problems running out of water late in the summer.”

Overall, the valley has fared much better. Right now, there is a good flow in the river, but this is the third year of below normal monsoon precipitation and snow-pack. The district is only expecting 30 percent of the normal river flows.

“This could be one of the worst, if not the worst, that anybody has ever experienced,” Gensler said. “I’ve spent lots of time looking back over records in the ’50s and even older. You couldn’t find three successive years that didn’t have at least one good winter or one good summer … if we don’t get a good summer monsoon season, I think it’ll be our longest run of bad luck ever.”

The district relies on monthly forecasts by the National Resource Conservation Service. It monitors snow fall, watersheds, moisture content and soil moisture to estimate what’s going to come out of the mountains in the runoff season.

The estimates predicted for March weren’t very good, about 55 percent of normal, and the April 1 numbers have been adjusted downwards quite dramatically, Gensler said.

“They’re now calling for flows on the Chama to be about 70,000 acre feet this spring, which is about 30 percent of normal, that’s a big decline,” he said.

On the main stem of the Rio Grande at key delivery points, flows went from 395,000 down to 235,000 acre feet. Essentially, there isn’t going to be a runoff, he said.

Valley farmers irrigate with natural river flow, and when that flow is less than what is needed, the district takes water from storage at El Vado reservoir, but El Vado is a supplemental supply, not a primary supply, and this year the stored supply is low.

Last year’s dry summer drained away the water in storage, and there hasn’t been enough precipitation and snow-pack to recharge the reservoir. There is only a fourth the amount in storage, about 25,000 acre feet.

“We just have a much reduced supply going into this season, and I think we will experience some pretty difficult shortages, certainly by mid-summer, maybe even early summer,” Gensler said.

What is available for the Middle Rio Grande Valley right now is about 750 cubic feet per second of natural river flow.

There is actually a little bit more than that in the river, because the Bureau of Reclamation is releasing supplemental water for the silvery minnow.

What water is available is being divided for the district’s four divisions based on the total number of acres in each division.

The Belen division is getting about 260 cubic feet per second at Isleta Dam. Socorro is getting 100 cfs.

The ditch riders started working on the west side first, then on to the east side.

It is up to the people to clean community ditches to be ready when water is available, said Tom Thorpe, MRGCD public information officer.

The ditch riders have the responsibility to work with the supervisor and hydrologist to match up water getting to a site.

Farmers must let their ditch rider know when they are going to need water, and the ditch rider should be able to tell them when water can be available.

“The longer advance notice you are able to give to him, the more likely he’ll be able to accommodate you,” Gensler said. “Everybody’s got to get lined up with everything in good order, so when the water is there they can knock it out quick and get done.”

When the natural flow of the river drops below a point of providing enough water for everyone, or when there isn’t enough water in storage for everyone, those who lease water from the water bank will be curtailed in favor of those with actual water rights.

“The board has no say in it whatsoever now,” said DuMars. “When it hits those targets written in the policy, water leases are going to get curtailed, and unless it starts raining a lot, it’s going to get curtailed this year for the first time it ever happened.”

Daily updates about water availability for all the diversion points are posted on the district’s website,

-- Email the author at