Widening drought leaves western US struggling for water

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — Tumbleweeds float along the Rio Grande as the sandbars within its banks grow wider. Smoke from distant forest fires and dust kicked up by intense spring winds fill the valley, exacerbating the sense of anguish that is beginning to weigh on residents.

One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande is another example of a waterway in the western US that is depleted.

From the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado River Basin, irrigation districts are already warning farmers to wait less this year despite surging demand fueled by ongoing drought conditions. Climate experts say March marked the third consecutive month of below-average rainfall in the US and areas of record drought are expanding in the West.

Mark Garcia, who farms about 400 acres (160 hectares) with his family in Valencia County, just south of Albuquerque, did the math. He has a bachelor’s degree in math and taught calculus for years before retiring and farming full time.

He found that his family would be compensated for not irrigating about half of their acreage this year, and more water would be left in the river to help New Mexico pay off a debt that has been mounting as the state defaults on its obligations to deliver water. to neighboring Texas.

“Logically, it was almost like a no-brainer,” Garcia said of opting for the fallow program. “The risk analysis was, I had to take it, I had to do it. However, I didn’t want to do it.”

Sitting in his backhoe in one of his fields, Garcia began to get emotional. He said that he grew up watching his father farm the land.

“I was born into this,” he said. “The difficult thing for me is that I feel like I don’t want the government to pay for me not to work. I have a problem with that.

The state of New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District hope that more farmers can make that difficult decision, at least long enough to help managers address outstanding water debt.

Even the conservation district, which oversees irrigation from Cochiti Dam south to Elephant Butte Reservoir, acknowledges it’s a temporary solution.

Casey Ish, a water resources specialist for the district, said more than 200 irrigators have signed up and officials are focusing on fields that are less productive or need rest.

“For us, this is just a tool and a way that the district is trying to help the state manage the state’s compact debt, but we certainly don’t anticipate a third or half of the district engaging in a fallow program year after year,” Ish said. “That’s not sustainable from a price point of view or from an agricultural point of view.”

Thursday’s virtual meeting will include estimates of how much the Bureau of Reclamation will have to work this season based on spring runoff predictions and current reservoir levels.

With below-average snow cover and deposits in some places reaching critically low levels, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its most recent monthly climate report that concerns are growing that the western drought will intensify.

On the Colorado River, the US Department of the Interior recently proposed retaining water in Lake Powell to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity amid what it said were the driest conditions in the region. in more than 1200 years.

The potential impacts on the lower basin states that could see their water supplies reduced (California, Nevada, and Arizona) are not yet known. But the conundrum speaks to the far-reaching roles of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, and the need to change quickly to meet climate change.

In the Pacific Northwest, experts are forecasting one of the driest summers on record, noting that nearly 71% of the region made up of Oregon, Washington and Idaho is in drought and nearly a quarter is already experiencing extreme drought.

An irrigation district serving more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers on the California-Oregon border announced earlier this week that they would receive a fraction of their normal water allocation this year due to drought. It is the third year in a row that severe drought has affected farmers, fish and tribes in a region where there is not enough water to meet competing demands.

Irrigation districts that supply water to farmers along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and along Pecos in the east also hold promise for short seasons.

Just north of the New Mexico-Colorado border, farmers in the San Luis Valley turned on their taps on April 1, drawing on their share of the Rio Grande. Water managers in New Mexico immediately saw gauges drop, meaning less water will ultimately reach central New Mexico.

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