“We’re getting into a position where we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions” noted Dr. Phil King at Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s monthly board of director’s meeting on October 14. King, a civil engineer, is the District’s water resources consultant and has been carefully monitoring the dismal water situation throughout the year. Our region, indeed, much of the western US, has experienced persistent drought since the early 2000s. As EBID and its farmer members plan for the 2021 water season, they have to deal with the grim reality that those conditions are still in place.
“Unless conditions improve in the late fall and winter,” King told the somber board members, “we can expect 2021 to be a critically low water supply year for the Rio Grande Project, perhaps the worst in Project history.”
The inflow to Elephant Butte Reservoir in 2020 was dismal, leaving very little new water for allocation to the US districts and Mexico in 2021. Southern New Mexico’s usual monsoon season instead developed into a “nonsoon” he said, failing to deliver seasonal relief and boost reservoir storage. Current storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs is only 112,000 acre-feet.
Nearly all of the watershed above Elephant Butte Dam is currently in severe to exceptional drought. La Niña conditions have settled into the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which tend to drive winter storms further north, out of the Rio Grande basin, King explained. Short-term and long-term weather forecasts are predicting a winter and spring that are drier and warmer than average, so deepening drought seems likely. “While there is much uncertainty in predicting next year’s water supply in October,” he acknowledged, “all indications are for a dry river this winter and a poor 2021 spring runoff.”
The District’s extensive system of rain gauges and weather monitoring stations across the watershed provide data throughout the year. While they will be keeping a trained eye on the developing outlook throughout the fall and winter, there is every indication of a poor runoff season.
EBID’s Board of Directors and staff are being forced to consider the dire possibility of a zero allotment in 2021. King warns, “At this point, it would be prudent for farmers in EBID to prepare for a late start to the surface water season – perhaps the beginning of June – and a very short season. Without a major improvement in upstream drought conditions, the 2021 available allotment to EBID farmers could be as bad as it was in 2011 (4 inches) or 2013 (3.5 inches), or worse.”
While the District hopes to have better news in the coming months, it is important that water users, both farm and flat-rate members, are aware of the expected upcoming tough conditions so they can plan accordingly.
Information on the water outlook can be found throughout the year on the EBID website at www.ebid-nm.org. In addition, the District’s new SCADA systems website at https://www.ebid-scada.org/ has a wealth of relevant water resource data, including both surface and groundwater, weather and rain monitoring sites, NOAA Climate Forecast, and other tools useful for planning.