New Mexico water managers said Friday they are hopeful that summer rains will alleviate the pains of a persistent drought, but until then, they're scrambling to meet demands across the state.
Along the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico, the Interstate Stream Commission is being forced for the first time to pump groundwater to augment the river's flow to meet a settlement with farmers in the Carlsbad Irrigation District.
On the lower Rio Grande, farmers have been negotiating with irrigation officials in New Mexico and Texas in hopes of getting additional water to extend what has been the shortest irrigation season on record.
In northern New Mexico, the city of Las Vegas has only enough water for the next 57 days.
"It's really pretty bad," said State Engineer John D'Antonio, New Mexico's top water official. "There are pockets around the state that are really hurting and unless the monsoons get here, there's not going to be any relief."
Forecasters were predicting the rains would start widespread around the state Sunday, but D'Antonio wasn't holding his breath that the moisture would keep lake shorelines from expanding or river sandbars from growing.
Nearly every corner of New Mexico has been affected by drought this year and in nearly half of the state, the conditions are so bad that they've been classified as exceptional -- the worst level of drought.
Last fall was dry and winter storms brought little more than freezing temperatures, thanks to a La Nina weather pattern that repelled moisture from much of the state. Spring offered little help, leaving many areas with just a fraction of their normal precipitation. In fact, some areas haven't seen significant rainfall since last year.
"When we've had this bad of a La Nina year, the odds favor an average to better-than-average monsoon season, but those are just odds," D'Antonio said. "It has nothing to do with the current hydrologic conditions."
Despite the grim situation, New Mexico's water managers said they are not concerned about meeting water delivery obligations to Texas on either the Pecos River or the Rio Grande. New Mexico has been able to build up credits on both rivers, but those credits stand to be eaten up without new water flowing into the system.
The other problem is meeting the needs of New Mexico's irrigators.
The Interstate Stream Commission has been pumping groundwater to meet the needs of Carlsbad irrigators since March, when it became clear there would not be enough water in the Pecos River by May to deliver the required 50,000 acre-feet to farmers. That requirement goes up to 90,000 acre-feet by September.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.
The state had spent about $100 million to acquire water rights and develop pumping capacity to meet the settlement's terms. This is the first year pumping has been required, said commission director Estevan Lopez.
"We're likely going to be in a deficit throughout the whole year. But right now, at least we have our wells up and running finally," Lopez said, adding that more than 21,000 gallons per minute were being pumped into the river near Brantley Reservoir.
Farmers along the lower portion of the Rio Grande are in a more precarious situation as they were only allocated four inches of water per acre this year. The drought, along with an operating agreement the Elephant Butte Irrigation District worked out with irrigators in El Paso, Texas, is threatening to bring an early halt to the irrigation season.
Officials have proposed a loan program that would borrow from New Mexico's accrued water credits to give another few weeks of water to irrigators in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Those farmers would have to pay back the water at the beginning of next year.
"They're essentially out of water right now and once they've stopped irrigating, things start drying up," Lopez said. "If they have to restart again, they use up an awful lot of their water in just rewetting the system. They have to make the decision very quickly."
D'Antonio said he believes the plan strikes a balance between providing additional water to New Mexico farmers and protecting the value of the water credits for users upstream. Both irrigation groups would have to agree to the plan.
The state has the ability to store more than 200,000 acre-feet of water in upstream reservoirs because of past water relinquishments made to Texas, but it's been too dry to take advantage of that, D'Antonio said.
"It's pretty dire out there," he said. "We need some rain."
The Middle Rio Grande Valley and the southeastern plains have seen an average of only 9 percent of their normal precipitation so far this year. The Silver City area has seen even less.
Monsoon season usually runs from the first or second week in July to the first week in September. Most places in the state get 30 to 40 percent of their precipitation during that time.
National Weather Service meteorologist Ed Polasko said the weather and wind patterns have been setting themselves up as expected, so he's hopeful New Mexico is on track for a normal monsoon season.
Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM