Drought persisted in southeast New Mexico to the end of the year, despite heavy summer monsoon rains, and local water users were planning to struggle.
Earlier this year, the Carlsbad Irrigation District (CID) responded to increased aridity in the spring by issuing a priority call on the Pecos River, meaning those who owned younger or “junior” water rights to the CID’s potentially would be required to curtail their use to allow the CID to get what it needed.
The CID holds the oldest or senior water rights on the river, and if it doesn’t have at least 50,000 acre feet (AF) in storage by March of each year, the District can issue the call.
An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre a foot deep.
The CID represents agricultural and rural water users along the Pecos River in southern Eddy County.
On Tuesday, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer through its Interstate Stream Commission issued an order to provide a framework for administering future priority calls, but reported the heavy rains and supplemental water pumping the state conducted earlier this year meant the process wasn’t needed in 2021.
“The State Engineer responded to the priority call by taking steps to prepare for priority administration, while also searching for more immediate sources of supply to alleviate the low supply conditions,” read the order.
“Ultimately, priority administration was not necessary this year because of the combination of monsoon rains and augmentation pumping by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) as required by the 2003 Pecos Settlement Agreement.”
The Settlement Agreement was reached between the CID and the State in 2003, requiring the Interstate Stream Commission to pump for extra water during drought years to help supply the CID.
The agreement does not guarantee the District 50,000 AF but establishes that the State will assist during low-level situations.
This year, the State reported it was able to supply about 20,000 additional AF to the CID by pumping at reservoirs in the Lake Avalon and Fort Sumner areas north of Carlsbad.
With drier conditions expected this winter and into next year, the Office warned that its pumping may be insufficient next year, potentially necessitating another priority call.
“The order issued by the State Engineer will provide the framework to administer water rights by priority when such administration is necessary, until district-specific regulations are promulgated,” the order read.
“The State Engineer continues to encourage parties to reach voluntary administration and shortage sharing arrangements as an alternative to priority administration.”
Water scarcity means conflict along the Pecos River
CID board member Coley Burgess said the District hoped it could avoid making a priority call next year, and instead called on the CID and other water users along the river to come together and negotiate water use in what he said was expected to be a dry 2022.
In response to the CID’s priority call in March, the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservancy District (PVACD), which represents water users in northern Eddy County and parts of southern Chaves County, issued a statement condemning the move as one that could threaten local water rights and risk more than 110,000 acres of irrigated farmland in the area.
“The PVACD is strongly opposed to a priority call by the Carlsbad Irrigation District because if successful, the area would suffer historic and crippling economic, cultural, and social injury which would take decades to repair,” read the statement.
“The economic impact of a priority call will devastate the entire Pecos Valley, and will not selectively ignore any user of water.”
The PVACD’s statements left Burgess and the CID worried it would not honor the 2003 Settlement, which he said entitles the CID and its senior water rights holder to a priority call.
“I understand them not wanting to impact their crops, but we’ve been dealing with droughts for so many years,” Burgess said. “We’d like to do something more proactive and work them to be preventative instead of being more forceful with the priority call.
“CID would rather work with the other users in the basin. Instead of everybody working against each other and things ending up in court and legal battles we’d much rather work together and have conversations.”
But until agreements are reached, Burgess said priority calls are the only way to ensure water users see their rights fulfilled.
“For now, our only option is to make the priority call on these drought years,” he said. “We will do that as necessary until we can work something out with all the parties.”
Drought still a threat to southeast New Mexico, could worsen over winter
Burgess said the Interstate Stream Commission initially predicted a wet winter, and that the CID would receive 70,000 AF by the March deadline.
But Burgess said recent reports indicated dryer conditions that forecast, and that number could dwindle below the 50,000 AF minimum.
Less water means farmer can’t water their crops and many reduce their acreage, cutting into their production and ultimate profits.
Presently, the CID’s water allotment to its members is about 0.86 AF, meaning that’s how much water landowners are given per acre. A full allotment is about 3.6 AF, and Burgess said a priority call is typically imminent when the allotment drops below 2 AF.
“It’s been really dry and warm winter. Right now, the outlook isn’t good,” he said. “We’ll know more when March comes around, but I know many farmers are already planning to fallow land. The farmers in the district are going to be hurting.”
While next year’s priority call still requires a vote from the CID’s board in March after the deadline, Burgess said the recent dry spell already made the call likely.
“Right now, it looks like it. That will be up to the board to vote on in March,” he said. “If we’re lower than the acre feet in the settlement agreement we will be in a position to make a priority call. Right now, we are definitely in that position.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor showed drought conditions could be returning to southeast New Mexico.
The latest report published showed as of Dec. 7 all of the state was under at least some drought conditions, while only 86 percent of the state was in drought three months ago.
Three months ago, more than half of Eddy County had no drought conditions at all, while almost the whole state was most recently listed as moderate – the second level in the Drought Monitor’s five-level scale.
A small part of northwest New Mexico was under the third level “severe drought,” while the southwest corner was at the third stage “abnormally dry.”
“The water that we got last year; the rain was enough to keep the crops that were planted alive, but we’re still looking at a drought situation,” Burgess said. “There are landowners that have fallowed lands. I just don’t see many farmers going out and planting big crops.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.