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New Mexico preps for future shortages on Pecos River

ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico’s top water official has issued an order establishing the framework for dealing with future water shortages on the Pecos River.

Water managers have been augmenting supplies in southeastern New Mexico by pumping groundwater, allowing farmers to continue irrigating cropland throughout the Carlsbad area and for New Mexico to make good on its water delivery obligations to neighboring Texas.

While pumping helped to make up for dwindling surface water supplies this year, officials are warning that it might not be able to meet demands in the coming years if drought persists and summer monsoons deliver less rain.

The latest seasonal outlook shows much of the Southwestern U.S. can expect drought to stick around through February. New Mexico already has experienced more dry years than wet ones over the last two decades, resulting in shrinking reservoirs and record-low river flows.

The order issued last week by State Engineer John D’Antonio said the need for administration of surface and groundwater rights within the Pecos River system “is so urgent” that a plan had to be developed.

While officials are encouraging water-sharing agreements and other options, the order spells out the process for the Office of the State Engineer to dole out water based on priority if supplies to junior water rights holders need to be curtailed. It would be up to the office to determine who holds valid rights and whether public health or safety could be compromised by cutbacks and if it would result in more for senior users.

Water rights holders would have an opportunity to appeal decisions as part of the process.

Under a 2003 settlement, the Interstate Stream Commission pumps groundwater to augment the Carlsbad Irrigation District's supply when the river can't meet farmers' needs. In exchange, the district agrees to not call for priority administration unless its supply is less than 50,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot is about 325,850 gallons. An average household uses one-half to one acre-foot of water a year.

The irrigation district in March had passed a resolution calling for priority administration of the Pecos River because of extremely low reservoir levels. State officials said they were able to avoid that because of groundwater pumping that boosted supplies by nearly 20,000 acre-feet.

The Office of the State Engineer said the groundwater pumping also has helped guarantee New Mexico’s continued compliance with the Pecos River Compact, which requires a certain amount of water to flow south to Texas.

While New Mexico has a compact credit of over 160,000 acre-feet, officials acknowledged concerns about projections for more dry forecasts.