New Mexico Farmers Adapt As Drought Grows Harsher

May 7, 2021

For 45 years, Edmund Ogaz has worked the fields of his Garfield farm. A self-proclaimed jack of all trades, he can be found planting chile, growing pecans and harvesting onions.

But a lack of water has significantly impacted how Ogaz irrigates his crops. When he first started farming, water from the local irrigation district was enough to sustain his farm. Now, Ogaz has had to rely on groundwater pumping—a practice that has become increasingly more common statewide.

“We’d start irrigating, from the irrigation district, in February, or early March,” Ogaz said. “We would already have water in the irrigation system from the river. But now, like this year, we're not going to get water until the first of June.”

Ogaz has worked to conserve water—ending the practice of planting multiple crops on the same land. He’s also taken steps to protect his crops from the increased salt content of groundwater, applying different kinds of fertilizers to fight against the salinity. 

“When you're used to just getting river water, which is high-quality water, you know, you've got to re-adjust certain things,” Ogaz said. “I wish I could have river water every day. I wouldn't have some of the water quality problems that I'm having now.”

Edmund Ogaz on his Garfield farm

Sam Fernald, the director of the Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University, says that conditions have gotten drier, leading to a lack of water for agricultural use.

“Farmers regularly would get three feet of water for irrigation, but some years now we're seeing, like in 2013, they got three inches,” Fernald said. “This year, they're getting four inches. So that's a tenth of the water.”

Fernald attributes the harsher conditions in part to rising temperatures associated with climate change. Average temperatures in New Mexico have risen more than three degrees since the 1970s, something that has led to heat drought.

“Because of that increased temperature, there's something called heat drought,” Fernald said. “This is in the upper watersheds that feed the Rio Grande. You get the same amount of precipitation, but because of the increased temperature, you get more evaporation.”

Executive Director of the New Mexico Chile Association Joram Robbs stressed that cuts to non-essential water use in urban areas can help save water for agricultural needs.

“A chile plant will take around 50 gallons of water per season,” Robbs said. “If they get water cuts, they might not be able to plant as much chili…we're charged with feeding more and more people, on less land, using less water and less natural resources every single year.”

And adapting to the changing conditions isn’t just impacting large farms—smaller operations are having to adjust as well. Operations like Ulrike West’s Wild West Berry Farm in Las Cruces.

Even on West’s small farm the impact of drought is undeniable.

“When the drought conditions started, our well ran dry,” West said. “It’s 450 feet deep—there’s no water.”

Now reliant on water from a utility service, West has worked to conserve as much as possible. It’s one reason she began using special growing boxes requiring less water.

“I needed a lot less water in those boxes than what I needed on the ground inside of my garden,” West said. “I decided I’d do the investment, to see if I could convince those strawberry plants, those dear little things, to be happy aboveground, in those Earth Boxes.”

Ulrike West picking berries at Wild West Berry Farm.

Depending on the season, Wild West Berry Farm can require up to 26,000 gallons of water a month. West says that if drought conditions continue to grow harsher, she will not be able to expand her business. 

Though willing to put her personal expansion plans on hold, West says she worries about the potential need for increased water rationing and the impact it would have on the agricultural industry.

“I just pray that God is gracious and gives us enough water,” West said.

Water Resources Research Institute Director Sam Fernald sees opportunities for smart water planning that can help farmers navigate drought conditions. He says changing the way reservoir water is stored can help soften the reality of water scarcity.  

“Right now, the Rio Grande is dry,” Fernald said. “If you carefully coordinate the management of the reservoirs, maybe tweak some of the ways that reservoir water is stored in Northern and Southern New Mexico, work with the farmers to see what their irrigation needs are, you can add aquatic ecosystem value to the river and maintain all those other values.”