It has been said that farmers are the biggest gamblers because each growing season they must bet that Mother Nature will deal them a good hand.
As weather goes, farmers have lost more hands than they’ve won in recent years, and they are about to receive another tough draw in the form of a La Niña, a Pacific Ocean weather pattern that pushes precipitation north, causing drier-than-normal conditions in the Southwest through the winter and spring.
This will be the second La Niña in a row, following an exceptionally dry 2020. All of it is part of a 22-year Southwest drought that has entered a more severe phase, depleting river flows, draining reservoirs to record lows and presenting increased challenges to water managers and growers.
Despite advances in agronomy, hydrology, climatology and other sciences, everyone involved in water supply still turns to an age-old practice.
“That’s all we can do,” said Corky Herkenhoff, owner of 740-acre Indian Hill Farms in San Acacia. “It’s looking pretty bleak.”
Rio Grande Valley farmers like Herkenhoff who rely on river water for irrigation, take the brunt of shortages brought on by La Niña compounding the effects of climate change.
Those effects include thinner snowpacks, more arid soil soaking up runoff needed to replenish waterways and more intense evaporation.
A state water manager said he has dealt with La Niñas for 20 years, but the difference now is the reservoirs have fallen to lows not seen since the 1950s drought, offering no backup supply.
“There’s no water in the bank, so to speak, next year,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Interstate Stream Commission director.
Last summer, much-hoped-for monsoons came, allaying an increasingly dire shortage of irrigation water for farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.
Still, the rain wasn’t enough to carry them through to their fall plantings, and by the end of the summer, only the six Native pueblos, which are first in line, were receiving water to irrigate.
If the valley endures another La Niña next year with no summer storms — well, that’s a scenario no one wants to think about.
“We’re just getting between a rock and a hard spot,” Herkenhoff said.
Planning for the unpredictable
Long-range data confirms a La Niña is forming.
“There’s potential for the drought to worsen through the winter and into the spring months,” said Clay Anderson, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Albuquerque. “At this point, one would expect significantly below-normal [spring] runoff.”
Data indicates stronger winds, less precipitation and above-average temperatures in the coming weeks, Anderson said.
A La Niña generally tapers off in the spring. After that is anyone’s guess, Anderson said, noting that rain during monsoon season is one of the hardest things to predict, including where it falls and how much.
“We’re always hopeful for a productive monsoon,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water supply in the West, will begin its stream flow forecasts — the basis for determining its water distribution — after the snowpack forms in January.
The bureau will share information on what it is seeing with the public, including La Niña’s impacts, while planning how to manage available water, agency spokeswoman Mary Carlson said. It will include scenarios on what weak snowpacks and no monsoons will mean for water supply, she added.
The agency oversees water that flows from the Colorado River Basin through the federal San Juan-Chama Project — a series of tunnels and diversions — and into the Rio Grande. The largest users include the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, tribes and growers.
It’s different from the natural or “native” river water that supplies most farmers in the valley as well as downstream users such as Texas.
Carolyn Donnelly, the agency’s water operations supervisor, said the staff will work with the various stakeholders to balance their needs amid the diminished supply.
“We do the best that we can,” Donnelly said. “It’s difficult to have a bad year. It’s more difficult to have two bad years in a row. To have three in a row is, of course, that much more of a challenge.”
Donnelly said she wasn’t writing off the coming year just yet.
Projections for 2021 were dismal, and then the monsoons came, she said. Five years ago, a late spring snow saved what was shaping up to be a bad year, she said.
Still, there’s likely to be a shortage of San Juan-Chama water next year, Donnelly said, noting that users this year received about 65 percent of their maximum allocation of water.
Water managers can only plan so much, especially this early, and must respond to conditions as they arise, Donnelly said.
“Mother Nature, the conditions that we get, change so quickly,” she said. “It’s pretty rare that we’ll get exactly what we predicted.”
By most estimates, Santa Fe and Albuquerque will fare well in the La Niña because they have expansive groundwater to draw from as a backup source.
And although the Abiquiú and Heron reservoirs are low, Santa Fe has a year’s worth of water store there that it can tap when needed.
The reserve is about 12,500 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to submerge a football field in a foot of water.
The Buckman Direct Diversion, built 11 years ago, has enabled Santa Fe’s groundwater to recharge so much that some wells are overflowing.
“The water pressure has built up to the point that it’s gotten above ground surface,” said Bill Schneider, the city’s water resources coordinator. “That’s known as artesian conditions. We actually … need to run the wells now.”
Farmers on the front line
Growers could wind up in the most difficult situation because the low reservoirs will leave them to depend solely on snowpack runoff and summer rains.
A few December storms in Northern New Mexico were encouraging signs that perhaps the winter won’t be as dry as predicted, and maybe the region will get a couple of storms a month into the spring, said Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
“I’m not counting this year out yet for snowpack,” Hamman said.
Still, he acknowledged that hope is not a plan.
As the outgoing Conservancy District’s leader, he recommended to the board that it distribute water to growers a couple of weeks earlier than normal, in contrast to the previous spring, when irrigation season began 30 days late.
The delay led to many farmers not receiving their first irrigation supply until late April or early May, Hamman said.
“It just took too long to get the water out to them,” he said. “We want to move that up so everybody gets that first watering while we still have water.”
He also has suggested the district send half the available river water downstream to meet the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. The agreement governs water deliveries for New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.
The other half of the water supply will be dispensed to irrigators, though in a more measured way than in the past when it was released in large volumes, Hamman said. Tighter management and more efficient water delivery will be important in a drier-than-normal year, he said.
Schmidt-Petersen, the stream commission director, said state water managers in the upcoming legislative session will request $15 million to beef up the district’s fallowing program.
The program pays farmers not to grow, enabling their normal allotment of water to instead be funneled downstream to help pay the state’s water debt to Texas, he said.
New Mexico came into 2021 owing Texas about 96,000 acre-feet of water, and despite the district’s best efforts, the debt has grown by 25,000 acre-feet because river flows remained lower than expected during the monsoons, Schmidt-Petersen said.
A more arid climate is increasing the river’s evaporation, and at the same time, drying out the soil, which now soaks up rain like a sponge, he said. La Niña will exacerbate those conditions, Schmidt-Petersen added.
Herkenhoff, the farmer, said he will dust off a couple of old pumps, which haven’t been used in 50 years, for a well he plans to drill in anticipation of diminished river water next year.
However, the Rio Grande Compact only allows new wells to irrigate farmland that an owner had before the late 1950s and nothing after that, Herkenhoff said. For him, that’s only 180 of his 740 acres.
It’s better than nothing in a dry year, but still a huge loss, he said.
“When they were negotiating the compact, I don’t think they made any attempt to foresee what might happen,” Herkenhoff said.