Climate experts and irrigation districts are warning that 2022 is looking dry for the Paso del Norte region.
New forecasts released Monday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict hotter temperatures and low chances for moisture in the Southwest, stemming from the cooling of Pacific waters known as the La Niña weather pattern. That pattern usually prevents a wet winter in the Western United States, exacerbating the region’s 20-year megadrought.
“Ongoing drought persistence is likely heading into the spring,” said Brad Pugh, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “Perhaps even intensifying drought conditions, especially across the plains of high plains of eastern New Mexico.”
Those predictions spell bad news for the Rio Grande.
Most of the Rio Grande’s water stems from snowmelt in the mountain ranges in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Snow acts like a water bank, accumulating over the winter, and melts to fill rivers and streams through the spring and summer.
About 80% of Rio Grande water is used for agriculture, but the river also provides water for cities like Albuquerque and El Paso.
While the Colorado snowpack improved with snowstorms in January and February, the Rio Grande basin has only seen about 64% of average precipitation.
Climate change has already shrunk what is now considered a “normal” annual snowpack. Decades of rising temperatures and fluctuating precipitation have dried out soils, which both prevents waters from flowing into streams and causes more dust, melting snowpacks at faster rates.
Snowpack across most of northern New Mexico is between half to 75% of normal right now — with about two months before April’s expected peak levels for snowmelt.
There’s still a little time left to hope, said Alex Mayer, director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“(New Mexico and Colorado) could get a chunk of snow between now and the end of April,” Mayer said. “But historically, we’re quite behind and La Niña years usually mean less snow than the average.”
Cumulative bad water years make the Rio Grande less reliable, Mayer said, a huge concern for the people depending on it.
“I believe it’s going to be the agriculture that’s going to take it on the chin first,” Mayer said. “But we’re getting to the point where we may have to accept that the surface water (the river) is unreliable.”
El Paso Water is scaling back how much the city will rely on the river, said Gilbert Trejo, interim chief operations officer for the utility. He described the outlook for future Rio Grande levels as “dire” at a February International Boundary and Water Commission meeting.
“The water strategies in place to serve the city over the next 15 years include the scenario where there’s no river water for a sustained period of time,” Trejo said at that meeting.
El Paso Water’s long-term strategies include desalinating brackish water from underground aquifers; building an advanced water purification system to treat wastewater into drinking water; and the eventual importation of water from utility-owned ranches 90 miles away. All of those options currently cost more than treating river water.
Mayer said the two decades of severe drought poses a direct threat to farming, since most crops need irrigation water to survive the heat.
“Some farmers probably still could keep going, but I’m afraid that we might see that agriculture starts to be unaffordable,” Mayer said. “It’s not just that one year has been bad. It’s the successive years that farmers have to pick up the slack from the river water with expensive groundwater pumping.”
El Paso County Water Improvement District No.1 General Manager Jesús Reyes said farmers scraped by last year due to record monsoons in late summer, but some only kept pecan trees alive with just 18 inches of water.
Reyes met with farmers in February to warn about the irrigation outlook, and said planting cotton this year was their “gamble.” The crop, while drought-tolerant, can’t survive solely on the rainfall in El Paso and usually needs irrigation in the spring months.
“It’s looking like last year at 18 inches, which is less than half of a full allocation. So the gamble is theirs,” Reyes said. “If they have wells, they can pump. But those without wells are the ones that will suffer.”
Gary Esslinger, manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in southern New Mexico, said he’s expecting farmers to receive four inches of water during a short irrigation season, compared to the three acre feet in a full allotment.
“We’ve got a month to go, and sometimes March is a miracle month,” Esslinger said. “But unless we get a monumental snow up north, we’re expecting to look like last year.”
Feature photo: The Rio Grande riverbed outside of Rincon, N.M., before the spring 2021 water release from Elephant Butte Reservoir. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)