The dry, sandy riverbed of the Rio Grande will once again fill with water this weekend in the El Paso area, beginning a short irrigation season.
The Bureau of Reclamation first released water from New Mexico's Elephant Butte Reservoir and then opened the gates of the Caballo Reservoir on June 1.
By Friday morning water had flowed downstream to Mesilla, New Mexico. River water began reaching El Paso on Sunday. Rio Grande water will end up in El Paso's faucets, irrigating fields of cotton and alfalfa and sustaining wetland ecosystems like the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park.
The annual water allotments for Southern New Mexico, far West Texas and Mexico are below normal levels. Less snowpack, warmer temperatures and limited precipitation have reduced water levels along the Rio Grande in recent years. Farmers and water utilities are adjusting to the new reality.
El Paso Water CEO John Balliew wrote in his "On the Waterfront" newsletter on May 26 that Rio Grande water will account for less of El Paso's drinking water this season. The utility has developed alternative drinking water sources to depend less heavily on the river, including desalination and advanced purification.
"River water sometimes accounts for half our water supply," Balliew wrote. "But this year, we are due to receive about 16% of our normal season allotment."
"For decades, however, El Paso Water has been planning and preparing for a year like 2022 in which we won’t receive our full share of Rio Grande water," he wrote.
Jesús Reyes, manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District, said farmers supplement river irrigation water with groundwater wells. The District covers 69,000 irrigable acres of farmland. Approximately 49,000 acres are currently in agricultural production, Reyes said.
He said once the water reaches El Paso on Sunday, the District's extensive system of canals will start to fill. He expected water deliveries to farmers to start, "As soon as we can build up the water into our canal system, Monday morning at the latest."
On Friday morning at the Rio Bosque Wetland Park off Socorro Road, manager John Sproul hauled water in buckets to quench the thirst of cottonwoods and willows. The park depends on water from the Bustamante Wastewater Plant and water deliveries from the Rio Grande.
He was relieved that water would soon begin to flow at the park, where a wetland ecosystem has slowly taken hold.
Water users in New Mexico and Texas breath a momentary sigh of relief in the first days of June, as the Rio Grande once again flows through the arid Borderland.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Rio Grande water returns to El Paso, quenching arid region