Longtime farmer Glen Duggins is pumping more groundwater this summer to irrigate the crops he grows on his small farm along the Río Grande than he can recall doing in many years.

A severe, prolonged drought is reducing the river's flows to the lowest levels in decades, affecting cities' drinking water supplies and compelling farmers to adjust how they water their fields.

Duggins grows chile peppers, alfalfa and corn on his 400-acre farm in Lemitar, a tiny community north of Socorro. He already faces the prospect of restaurants buying fewer goods from him during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, when their operations have been limited by the state's public heath orders. Now he's also seeing higher costs to produce his crops due to pumping.

But he is fortunate, he said, because many farmers in the Middle Río Grande Valley don't have water pumps and must shut down when the river gets low.

"Even if you have pumps, the cost of running them is very expensive," said Duggins, who also is the president of the New Mexico Chile Association. "It's a Band-Aid. It's all it's meant to be. We need the river water."

So far, he's shelled out $10,000 for three weeks of pumping and expects he'll have to pump groundwater for an additional three weeks. This is in addition to the fees he pays to the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District for river water.

A thin mountain snowpack, recent heat wave and light monsoon have depleted water levels from the Colorado River Basin to the Chama River to the Río Grande. It's perhaps the most arid year in a two-decade dry period in New Mexico, making climate scientists and water managers wonder whether this is the start of an even drier time that will demand a new, long-term approach to urban planning and water use.

Locally, the prolonged drought can be seen in cottonwoods' foliage turning yellow six weeks early along a parched stretch of the Santa Fe River and the likelihood of the Buckman Direct Diversion -- which pulls Río Grande flows for city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County water users -- suspending operations for the first time in its 10-year history.

Everyone must prepare for how a warmer climate will diminish water supplies and put more stress on humans and the ecosystem, said Dave DuBois, a state climatologist at New Mexico State University.

"We need to address climate change and adapt to it," DuBois said. "Not just in the here and now, but the next 20, 30 years."

Drought pinches water supply

New Mexico went through an exceptionally wet period between the 1970s and late 1990s, DuBois said.

Elephant Butte Reservoir, he said, was filled with 2 million acre-feet of water in 1999. An acre-foot is nearly 326,000 gallons.

After that, the state went into a dry period with a few sporadic wet spells, and Elephant Butte's water level dropped to 200,000 or 300,000 acre-feet most years, and as low as 50,000 by the end of seasonal irrigations, DuBois said.

"I don't see any indicator of that going up," he added.

Aside from precipitation plummeting, the state's average yearly temperatures have increased by several degrees since the 1970s -- and show signs of rising more in the future, DuBois said.

A warming climate means more surface water in rivers, lakes and reservoirs will be lost through evaporation, he said, with lighter snowpacks in the mountains to replenish the supply, all while New Mexico's growth puts more demands on water.

Many state and regional management plans and urban growth plans were based on the wetter period and must be adjusted, not only for a warmer and more arid climate but to accommodate a swelling population and a still robust agricultural industry.

"There's a lot more users than there used to be," DuBois said.

As a stopgap measure for this season's low river flow, Texas, a partner in the decades-old interstate Río Grande Compact, agreed to release 36,000 acre-feet of water from its reserve supply at El Vado Reservoir in Río Arriba County for use by the Middle Río Grande Conservancy District.

The dam at El Vado is one of three in the federal San Juan-Chama Project, a system that diverts water from the San Juan River to the Chama River and then to the Río Grande for use in households across the state, including in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

The water released from El Vado is mainly intended for irrigation within the conservancy district -- which stretches from Cochiti Lake to south of Socorro -- and for now is boosting the river's flows. But without heavier monsoon rains this summer, the Río Grande is expected to drop below a critical threshold in September, forcing the Buckman Direct Diversion to shut down for six to eight weeks.

Santa Fe officials say area wells will have no problem supplying drinking water for the city while Buckman is idled. Still, they and other authorities have expressed concerns about whether severe dips in river flow will become a seasonal trend.

David Gensler, a hydrologist with the conservancy district, said he's a climate change doubter but can't deny this year's drought is highly unusual and might not bode well.

"This is the worst year I remember here in the valley in the last 25 years in terms of overall water supply," Gensler said.

Texas was gracious in passing its supply of water for next year to the conservancy district, Gensler said. But the district must repay that water plus additional water it will owe to Texas by that year's end, totaling 60,000 to 100,000 acre-feet, he added.

Gensler said he's confident the district will repay what it owes Texas in the spring by operating leaner and storing water more efficiently at El Vado.

More reservoir water could become available to the conservancy district and regional governments in the future. A recently passed U.S. House bill would allow Abiquiú Lake, also in the San Juan-Chama system, to increase its storage capacity by 30,000 acre-feet.

Proponents say that would allow for greater flexibility for storing and using water, especially during droughts.

Conservation is key

Regardless of whether this drought is short-term or long-term, or even if wet times return, the conservancy district and anyone else managing water must be more efficient, Gensler said.

Everyone wants more water, from farmers to developers to environmentalists seeking to restore wildlife habitat in rivers, he said.

"We are going to have to figure out how to do more with less," Gensler said.

DuBois said people are doing a decent job reducing their water consumption and now must work to ensure there's enough water for future generations.

"More conservation on the urban side and smart agriculture on the surface water side," DuBois said.

In New Mexico, agriculture is the largest consumer of water.

Farmers should consider cultivating crops that require less irrigation, such as guar, a type of bean, and a different type of alfalfa than is common, DuBois said.

However, Gensler thinks the key to conserving water is improving how it's delivered and used. That would help ensure farmers have adequate water supply even during a shortage, he said.

"There's a lot of waste," he said.

Earthen canals absorb some of the water and allow much of it to evaporate, he said, adding it would be better to instead funnel the water through culverts and pipes.

Wasting water also can be a matter of bad habits and misinformation, Gensler said.

Some farmers carry on age-old routines passed down from earlier generations, such as watering their fields every Tuesday morning, even if the crops or soil don't need it, he said. Others slowly irrigate, believing they are conserving water, when in fact they are using five or six times as much as they would with a faster delivery.

"When we talk about climate change, you know, if it's going to be a 50 percent reduction in water supply, that's going to be pretty tough," Gensler said. "But if we're talking about a 15 [percent] or 25 percent reduction … I think we can wring that much blood out of the turnip."

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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