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Expanding drought leaves western US in search of water


ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Tumbleweeds drift along the Rio Grande as sandbars on its banks widen. Smoke from distant forest fires and dust kicked up by intense spring winds fill the valley, heightening the sense of distress that is beginning to weigh on residents.

One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande is another example of a harnessed waterway in the western United States.

From the Pacific Northwest to the Colorado River Basin, irrigation districts are already warning farmers to expect less this year despite growing demands fueled by ever drier conditions. Climate experts say March marked the third straight month of below-average rainfall in the United States, and the record dry patches are spreading across the West.

This April 10, 2022 image shows a tumbleweed stuck in the mud along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque, NM

AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan

On Thursday, federal water managers are due to share their annual operating plan for the Rio Grande, a major water source for millions of people and thousands of square miles of farmland in Colorado, New Mexico, in Texas and Mexico. Its outlook should be equally bleak.

Mark Garcia, who farms about 400 acres (160 hectares) with his family in Valencia County, just south of Albuquerque, ran the numbers. He graduated in math and taught calculus for years before retiring and turning to farming full time.

He found that his family would be compensated for not irrigating about half its acreage this year, and that there would be more water left in the river to help New Mexico pay off a debt that has been growing steadily. grow while the state fails to meet its obligations to provide water. in neighboring Texas.

“Logically, it was almost like a no-brainer,” Garcia said of his choice in the fallow program. “The risk analysis was, I had to take it, I had to do it. I didn’t want to, though.

Sitting in his backhoe in one of his fields, Garcia started to get emotional. He said he grew up watching his father till the land.

“I was born into it,” he said. “The hardest thing for me is that I feel like I don’t want the government to pay for me not working. I have a problem with that.

New Mexico State and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District hope more farmers can make that tough choice — at least long enough to help managers deal with outstanding water debt.

Even the Conservation District, which oversees irrigation from the Cochiti Dam south to Elephant Butte Reservoir, acknowledges this is a temporary fix.

District water resource specialist Casey Ish said more than 200 irrigators have signed up and officials are targeting fields that are less productive or need resting.

“For us, it’s just a tool and a way the district is trying to help the state deal with the state’s compact debt, but we certainly don’t plan to drag a third or half of the district in a fallow program year after year,” Ish mentioned. “It’s not sustainable from a price point or an agricultural point.”

Thursday’s virtual meeting will include estimates of how much work the Bureau of Reclamation will need to work with this season based on spring runoff forecasts and current reservoir levels.

With below-average snow cover and reservoirs in some places reaching extremely low levels, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its latest monthly climate report that concerns are growing about intensifying drought in the west.

On the Colorado River, the US Department of the Interior recently proposed impounding water in Lake Powell to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity in what it said were the toughest conditions. regions for more than 1,200 years.

The potential impacts on states in the lower basin that could see their water supply reduced – California, Nevada and Arizona – are not yet known. But the riddle speaks to the extended functions of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam, and the need to pivot quickly to deal with climate change.

In the Pacific Northwest, experts are predicting one of the driest summers on record, noting that nearly 71% of the region made up of Oregon, Washington and Idaho is in drought and near a quarter is already experiencing extreme drought.

An irrigation district that supplies more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers on the California-Oregon border announced earlier this week that it would get a fraction of its normal water allotment this year due to the drought. . It is the third year in a row that a severe drought has affected farmers, fish and tribes in an area where there is not enough water to meet competing demands.

Irrigation districts that provide water to farmers along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and along the Pecos in the east also promise short seasons.

Just north of the New Mexico-Colorado border, farmers in the San Luis Valley turned on their taps on April 1, drawing on their share of the Rio Grande. New Mexico water managers immediately saw the gauges drop, which means less water will eventually get to central New Mexico.




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