NM grapples with tough choices as drought persists

More tough choices ahead for farmers, cities as NM grapples with third year of drought

In this March 20, 2013 photo, a tractor prepares a pecan orchard near Rincon, N.M., for the spring irrigation season. Farmers in southern New Mexico's Hatch and Mesilla valleys are worried about dwindling water supplies as the state enters its third straight year of drought. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

HATCH, N.M. (AP) -- In southern New Mexico, the mighty Rio Grande has gone dry — reduced to a sandy wash winding from this chile farming community to the nation's leading pecan-producing county. Only puddles remain, leaving gangs of carp to huddle together in a desperate effort to avoid the fate of thousands of freshwater clams, their shells empty and broken on the river bottom.

Across the state's eastern plains, wells stand empty and ranchers are selling their cattle. In the north, urbanites face watering restrictions while rural residents see the levels of their springs dropping more every day.

Going on three years, drought has had a hold on nearly every square mile of New Mexico. Now, with forecasts predicting hotter, drier weather ahead, farmers and small and large communities alike are questioning whether dwindling supplies can be stretched enough to avoid costly fights over water.

From the chile fields and pecan orchards of the Hatch and Mesilla valleys to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and beyond, New Mexicans are facing tough choices and dire consequences.

"Last year my son said, 'Mom, what do we let die? The hay, the wheat, the onions or the chile?'" said Rena Carson, whose family owns a chile-drying plant and spice company in the Hatch Valley and ships tons of products around the world annually.

In the last two years, the family has drilled two new wells to draw more irrigation water, but the groundwater level in the valley continues to drop — and the wells can't be drilled any deeper. This year, the family had to let 20 of their 800 acres go uncultivated.

Throughout these valleys, patches of farmland that should be verdant are brown and sit idle. Some pecan growers have trimmed trees to their trunks to save on watering. Others are drilling new wells and installing pipelines to make the most of every drop pumped. Some are sharing water and splitting the costs of pumping with neighboring farmers, or buying up land for the water rights.

Pecan growers rely mostly on wells to irrigate. Without a flowing river, the aquifers that feed the wells have little chance of being recharged.

"When that river is flowing, everything is fine," said Dickie Salopek, whose family has hundreds of acres of pecan trees in Dona Ana County, the top pecan-producing county in the U.S. "When it's not flowing, you better be thinking outside the box."

New Mexico produces more than 60 million pounds of pecans annually, while its world-famous chiles infuse an estimated $300 million into the economy each year.

In Hatch, the self-proclaimed "Chile Capital of the World," drinking water wells have dropped and the Pepper Pot restaurant is charging for tap water. "WATER ... .50," reads a note on a menu advertising enchiladas and tacos smothered with chile. Town officials worry about finding new sources of water for the area's chile farms. Without them, said former town trustee Andy Nunez, the village would wither.

"That's what we're afraid of," he said.

Across the eastern plains, the story is the same. Wells that provide drinking water are going dry, ranchers have been forced to sell off cattle, hay prices have skyrocketed, and reservoirs have reached record low levels — leaving little surface water for downstream users.

"We are really facing some extraordinary challenges," said Dennis McQuillan with the state Drinking Water Bureau. He pointed to residential wells outside of Santa Fe that are going dry and the potential for the city of Clovis to drain its aquifer in the next 20-40 years.

Most rural communities have robust wells, but members of the New Mexico Rural Water Association said water levels have been drawn down and that the drought and effects of wildfires are complicating their ability to keep some reservoirs full.

"The drought is a slowly building disaster," said Matt Holmes, the association's executive director.

In southeastern New Mexico, farmers in Carlsbad are demanding that groundwater users in Roswell and Artesia stop pumping in order to protect their rights to water in the Pecos River. A similar fight is happening on the Rio Grande, with Texas asking the U.S. Supreme Court to keep New Mexico from pumping and to force the state to send more water to farmers in El Paso.

In northeastern New Mexico, the spring that feeds rural Wagon Mound is dropping. Village officials worked with the state to develop a plan to keep the spring flowing, something McQuillan said could be a model as many of the state's 1,200-plus water systems consider revamping their water protection plans to make infrastructure improvements or find alternative water sources.

The dismal conditions of 2011 and 2012 made for the warmest and driest two-year period in New Mexico since forecasters began keeping track more than a century ago. Last year marked the second-driest year on record, with precipitation at 60 percent of normal. Snowpack in some places was half of normal heading into spring, leaving little hope that mountain moisture will reach the Rio Grande or other waterways.

Much of the U.S. faces persistent drought conditions, as well.

Models from the National Climatic Data Center show it would take more than a foot of rain over the next six months to end drought conditions in parts of the state. However, forecasts show no significant moisture on the horizon.

Albuquerque and other cities already have imposed restrictions limiting the days and times at which residents may water outdoors. And in the Hatch and Mesilla valleys, leveling farmland and orchards with lasers has become the norm to ensure water doesn't pool and go to waste.

Pecan grower Greg Daviet is changing his watering schedule to irrigate trees when their roots are primed to absorb the most moisture. He's also testing a new sensor that monitors soil moisture at different depths.

Unlike chile, onions, alfalfa and cotton, pecan trees can't go a year without water. They will die and take with them generations of cultivation and investment. Some New Mexico orchards are more than 70 years old.

"We have to farm them whether the resources are easy to get or not," Daviet said. "It hurts right now, but it will get better. It's been wet before. It's been dry before. It will be both again, and there's not a whole lot I can do about it anyway."