ALBUQUERQUE – Weather forecasters and state and federal water managers on Monday painted a grim picture of the chances drought-stricken New Mexico has to make up any ground this winter.
It’s early, but officials said the state is already starting off with half of the average snowpack for this time of year.
“It’s not a promising start to the snow season, and from most of what I’ve been seeing in terms of the models floating around, it’s not looking real optimistic as far as building snowpack through the winter either,” said Wayne Sleep, a hydrology technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Drought has a firm lock right now on much of the Western United States. In New Mexico, drought-related pressures are stacking up though after two consecutive years of little rain or snow.
Ranchers continue selling off their livestock, dairy and other agricultural operations have been forced out of business and those farmers who have weathered the drought so far are bracing for another year of pumping groundwater to irrigate their crops.
With no meaningful winter moisture, Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Raymond Abeyta said this will mark the lowest New Mexico reservoirs have ever been before an irrigation season.
“It would be nice if we could just postpone the whole season next year and reconvene when we actually get snowpack, but I don’t see that happening,” he said. “It’s going to be even tougher, I think, next year.”
John Longworth, chief of the state engineer’s water-use and conservation bureau, described the situation at many of New Mexico’s reservoirs as “stark.” He said aerial surveys show a growing ring around eastern New Mexico’s Santa Rosa Lake and the drying of Sumner Lake further south along the Pecos River.
In southern New Mexico, groundwater wells have been the only option for farmers who have had their surface water allotments from the Rio Grande slashed because of the drought and a lack of runoff. Longworth said the state engineer’s office is monitoring the effects of the increased pumping on the water table.
In southern New Mexico, home of the second-biggest and second-most valuable pecan crop in the nation, growers are anxious about the winter forecast and the possibility of even tighter water supplies next year.
Already, the drought has been a factor in several small orchards going out of business, said Phil Arnold, 57, whose family has been growing pecans in the Mesilla Valley for decades.
“This is the first time in my life that I remember the river in two subsequent years being completely dry,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a big thing. We’re very concerned about it.”
Federal agricultural statistics show New Mexico’s growers produced about 61 million pounds of pecans last year. The state’s crop was valued at more than $162 million, second only to Georgia.
Arnold said New Mexico pecan growers have been doing well in recent years because of high prices fueled by Chinese demand. However, it’s unclear what kind of effect the persistent drought is going to have given that irrigation is becoming more costly with more groundwater pumping and water-management policies in times of extreme drought could one day limit how much can be pumped.