New Mexico Water Managers Discuss Health of El Paso-Las Cruces Watershed

Sep 17, 2021

Over 1.5 million acres make up the El Paso-Las Cruces Watershed, extending from the Caballo Reservoir all the way through the Mexican border. Channeling both rainfall and snowpack, the watershed plays a pivotal role in distributing water throughout southern New Mexico.

But as climate change brings worsening drought conditions, New Mexico’s water managers are finding it harder to maintain the health of the watershed.

Gary Esslinger, the manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, stresses that continuing to improve stormwater recapturing efforts will help to recharge the aquifer and provide water for irrigation.

“It is our concern, dealing with the profound droughts that are occurring now, the intensity of the droughts that started back in 2003,” Esslinger said. “It is raising awareness of EBID to begin to manage how we can foresee these events before they are destructive. And if we can get a handle on how we can at least begin to evacuate our irrigation water to receive stormwater, then it's to the benefit of the whole entire valley.”

Esslinger says the district utilizes approximately 40 weather stations to gauge the strength of storms and prepare for heavy rainfall. But he says the state needs to further invest in monitoring and metering efforts.

“We need to go to Santa Fe and explain to them that there is a benefit here when we have a monsoon event,” Esslinger said. “It's just that we need to do more of this type of monitoring and metering to capture and reuse stormwater.”

Kevin Bixby, the executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, says that one of the biggest indicators of a healthy watershed is the health of the Rio Grande itself. Bixby points to the diminishing variety of fish in the river as one concern—of the approximately 20 species of fish originally found in the river, only about eight remain.

“My vision for the watershed is that the river is recognized as a stakeholder in watershed health and that we reimagine how to manage the river,” Bixby said. “So that it not just functions to deliver agricultural water, or get rid of floodwater, or runoff, but that it's restored to ecological health, and it functions like it once did. Albeit on a much smaller scale with less water.”

A growing population and large monsoon events have put stress on watershed infrastructure. Doña Ana County Flood Commission Director John Gwynne says there are well over 130 dams within the county, many of which are already at their service life.

“Most of those dams were designed to handle sediment and stormwater for farmer's fields,” Gwynne said. “And so as our population has grown, these dams are now above homes and above communities. And that creates a big issue in terms of how do we manage those. They don't meet the current design standards.”

Gwynne says finding ways to reduce stormwater is top of mind for the county, emphasizing a need to better channel the resource directly into the water systems that can help strengthen the aquifer.

“The flood commission in the past has been mainly worried about operating and maintaining the structures,” Gwynne said. “But one of the things that we've recognized is that watersheds are going to play a key role in trying to make these old structures last, and also to slow the sediment down so there's less sediment to remove, that also creates better recharge.”

New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte says measures need to be taken to improve the aging infrastructure now, rather than waiting for the problem to grow worse.

“These monsoon storms in the future are just going to keep growing,” Witte said. “The floods will come, and in what shape or form they're going to be in we don't know. But we have a good suspicion from what we've seen, from storm events we've had just this year in La Union and in the past in Hatch and other places. If we don't take that opportunity to fix those 100 plus dams in this area, we're going to lose that, and then it's going to be reengineering the entire part.”

The Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s Gary Esslinger says educating legislators on the unique challenges and funding needs of the watershed is vital to protecting the resource for everyone.

“When I talk to our legislators they don't understand we’re in the Chihuahuan Desert. Our watershed is completely different,” Esslinger said. “And I think there's an educational opportunity to try to bring it to the awareness of our local legislators as well as our congressional delegation that, you know, you can't put all the money into forest health.  You've got to break some of that out for areas like ourselves.”