New Mexico State University workshop tackles drought, water conservation
FARMINGTON — As farmers begin planting crops this spring, many irrigators are worried about the worsening drought conditions in the Four Corners region.
Those concerns prompted New Mexico State University officials to organize a workshop today at McGee Park to address water conservation and ways to deal with the drought.
The U.S. Drought Monitor places San Juan County in the worst drought category. Those drought conditions have developed over the past few months.
About 80 percent of water use in San Juan County is agricultural, according to New Mexico State University Agriculture Extension agent Bonnie Hopkins.
The city of Farmington has implemented stage one of its drought management plan, which calls for voluntary conservation. But Hopkins said even if all municipal water users reduced their water consumption by half, it would not make a big difference because the biggest water users are agricultural.
Shawn Williams, watermaster manager for the Office of the State Engineer, said problems developed when the various irrigation ditches in the county opened their headgates in early April to begin the irrigation season, and the flow in the Animas River was reduced to a trickle. Spring snowmelt has improved the flow in the river, but Williams warned the dry conditions could return.
If the gauge in the Animas River registers 225 to 250 cubic feet of water per second or less at Cedar Hill north of Aztec, more than a dozen ditches that draw from the river will have a hard time getting enough water, according to Williams.
Williams said if the Animas River level falls to 225 cubic feet per second at Cedar Hill, the ditches that draw from the river will begin a rotation schedule. The city of Aztec has posted a letter Williams sent to ditch companies detailing the rotation cycle on its website, aztecnm.gov.
Currently, the gauge at Cedar Hill is registering 1,140 cubic feet per second, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
State climatologist David DuBois detailed the local drought conditions at the start of the meeting. Most of the Four Corners region has seen less than 20 percent of average precipitation, and temperatures are ranging 3 to 4 degrees above average, he said. Snow began accumulating in the mountains later than normal this year, and there was not as much snow as normal.
The snowpack began melting earlier than normal, and officials say the Four Corners already has likely experienced peak spring runoff from the mountains. That means the level of water in the rivers will begin to decrease once again, he said.
“I wouldn’t bank on a wet June right now,” DuBois said.
While he said June will likely be dry, DuBois said the Four Corners region could see above-average rainfall once the monsoons do come.
He encouraged people not to water their fields if they do not have to irrigate. Williams said they will not lose their water rights if they do not irrigate this year. If they do choose to irrigate land that isn’t being used for crops, Williams encouraged them to plant cover crops to reduce evaporation.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Navajo Dam to protect fish habitat on the San Juan River. Williams said that has helped irrigators who rely on the San Juan River. The bureau looks at three gauges to determine releases from the dam. The gauges at Farmington, Shiprock and Bluff must average 500 cubic feet per second to protect the endangered fish habitat, according to Williams.
"What that's done is made it kind of easy for us on the San Juan," Williams said. "There's usually enough water for everyone's needs, even at that level."
New Mexico State University agronomist Robert Flynn encouraged farmers to analyze their soil to determine how much water is needed.
"Texture really does dictate how much water is available to the plant," he said.
He said people who have sandy soil will need to water more than people who have clay soil.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at email@example.com.