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Feds warn of early end to Rio Grande irrigation

Published July 9, 2013 6:16 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Albuquerque, N.M. • Federal water managers on Tuesday warned that the irrigation season for farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley soon will be over.

The flow between Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs ended Monday, meaning the shortest irrigation season in the history of the Rio Grande Project quickly will be coming to an end. The Bureau of Reclamation said no further releases were scheduled, and the Rio Grande south of Elephant Butte was expected to start drying up.

"We're breaking all the records now of the 1950s and the '60s droughts. It's just not a good year," said Gary Esslinger, manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. "We do have some signs of the monsoons starting but nothing that's been any significant help to us."

Reservoirs around the state have been shrinking due to a stubborn drought that has plagued New Mexico for the past three years. In fact, the latest federal maps show no other place in the country is dealing with as much exceptional drought as New Mexico.

Elephant Butte, the state's largest reservoir, has reached a historic 40-year low, according to federal water managers. The reservoir's level stands at just 3 percent of its total storage capacity.

With the limited supplies, farmers in the lower valley received just a fraction of their normal irrigation allotment. Esslinger said farmers will again have to rely on pumping groundwater to irrigate their crops for the rest of the growing season.

The Rio Grande Project extends from Elephant Butte into Texas. It delivers water to about 280 square miles of farmland in southern New Mexico, West Texas and Mexico, as well as water for municipal and industrial uses by the city of El Paso, Texas.