As the county enters the second consecutive year of less water in a drying trend stretching back two decades, irrigators across New Mexico are struggling to keep orchards, pastures, farms and gardens alive.
"I can't remember the last time we had the good snows, 3 and 4 feet deep, like we did in the 1980s and early 1990s," said León, who also teaches music in the Questa School District and is one of 200 irrigators on the ditch. "We've been experiencing drought for years and it is progressively getting worse."
The latest water supply forecast for rivers and reservoirs in Northern New Mexico isn't the worst it's been, but it's far from great.
The Upper Río Grande water basin that encompasses Taos County from the southern Colorado border south to Santa Fe, has three-fourths of the median usual snowpack as calculated over the last 30 years. The Río Grande in Colorado from the headwaters to the border is doing better at 110 percent of the median while the Jemez and Pecos basins had 64 and 52 percent of the median snowpack respectively.
The basin outlook and water supply forecast report, released monthly by the Natural Resources Conservation Service from January to May, estimates the amount of surface water that will be available through July - information critical to farmers, river guides and municipal water managers.
This year, the mountain snowpack in the Sangre de Cristos isn't terrible, but the usual runoff of snowmelt that feeds river and flows into irrigation ditches hasn't appeared.
Some irrigators think that's because 2020 was dry enough that now the thirsty soil is sucking up all the water from the melting snow before the flow makes it far.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced weekly with data compiled about precipitation, soil and vegetation conditions, noted in early April that 'due to a very limited monsoon season (in 2020) and sparse fall and winter snows, drought conditions have persisted across New Mexico. Severe to Exceptional conditions continue across the majority of the state."
Judy Torres, director of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, said she recently went on a tour of the Río Chiquito in Talpa. "The mayordomo (ditch boss) said it usually takes 48 hours to go from the mountain to Río en Medio," she said. "This time it took 10 days and the water still didn't make it all the way. The ground is just so dry."
Torres noted that while the snow telemetry sites in the Sangre de Cristos that measure precipitation in the mountains show an average snowpack, "we're not seeing it in the ditches."
Toby Martínez with the Jarosa Ditch in Ranchos de Taos said he sees good snowpack in the mountains that feed into the Río Grande del Rancho from which the acequia draws water. The wind over the last few weeks isn't good, but the low temperatures have kept the snowpack in place, he said. "The mayordomos are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping we will still get flow," Martínez said.
Edward Romero, mayordomo on the Acequia Madre Norte del Cañon said he expects the acequia to run out of its allotted water share from the Río Fernando by mid-May because of the lack of water. "It's going to be sad," he said.
Like Cerro de Guadalupe ditch, a lot of the property owners with water rights on the Cañon ditch live out of state or don't have time to farm, so they have saved - banked - their water rights with the acequia associations. That's a good thing in a dry year, allowing the remaining irrigators on the ditches to stretch the paltry water flow among fewer acres.
Romero, like León, said the region simply doesn't get the kinds of snow it did 20 years ago. But this isn't the first time he's been through it. "The drought of 2000 wiped me out. I had to get rid of all my cows," he said.
He doesn't know if this drought is linked to climate change. "These are cycles. It's not new. We've been through dry times and severe drought before."
For now, León, Romero and other Northern New Mexico irrigators hope at least the summer rains will come.