The water that’s currently flowing through the irrigation ditches of Valencia County will flow no more starting June 21, if the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) is unable to negotiate for more water.
“Unless we cannot reach an agreement on negotiations on water, then and only then would we not be able to run the water,” said Richard Jaramillo, Belen division manager of the MRGCD.
“We are trying to ascertain some rights to additional water. We’re looking at federal agencies or possibly the City of Albuquerque.”
Right now, the water level in the Rio Grand at the River Road bridge area in Belen has been so low that it’s become a constant playground for four-wheel-drive recreation vehicles. The river has more land exposed at that point than flowing water.
It’s not surprising, considering that the measured flow of the Rio Grande at Embudo station, just north of where the Chama River intersects it, is at 8 percent of normal flow — the lowest reading in more than 100 years.
“In the event that we are out of water, then it is likely the farmers in the valley will lose their crops, unless they have pumps and wells,” Jaramillo said.
“The recent rain was just enough to wet the surface,” Jaramillo said. “We’ve been in such a drought that the rain just soaked the surface.”
Thus far, the rainfall for the year stands at 0.82, as recorded by the National Weather Service (NWS) in Albuquerque, although News-Bulletin records show only 0.41 in readings taken in Belen. The average normal rainfall for this time is 2.56, which means Albuquerque is minus 1.74 inches. In Belen, average precipitation by this time of year is 2.23, meaning the Hub City is 1.82 inches behind.
The last recorded rainfall in the county was 0.15 at the NWS cooperative site, three miles southwest of Los Lunas. The average annual rainfall for central Valencia County is 9.06 inches.
“Monsoon comes around July 7,” said Deirdre Kann, a meteorologist with the Albuquerque NWS for the past eight years. “Some-times they come early and sometimes later. The monsoon usually brings a little steadier supply.”
In the past, average county rainfall was 1.24 inches for July and 1.77 for August. However, if the irrigation ditches are closed, even the normal amount of rainfall will likely not be enough to save area crops.
“What are small farmers like myself supposed to do?” said Louis Hernandez of El Cerro Loop.
Hernandez has about two acres of pasture grass he uses to feed his sheep.
“As a result of having trouble with my irrigation well, I had to use the irrigation (ditches) to water my grass for the sheep,” Hernandez said.
“People planting corn will be the hardest hit and the vegetable farmers or small grains,” said Angelo Baca, president of the Valencia County Farm and Livestock Bureau and owner of Baca Farms, which covers about 400 acres, primarily of alfalfa, in the area of Adelino and Tomé.
“We have survived droughts before, but it’s getting harder now because so many demands for water are really cutting into our water supply,” Baca said. “We’re starting to feel the urban expansion.”
Right now, Baca feels like he can cut his alfalfa a second time, but, if the irrigation ditches close, that will be the last crop.
“I doubt that the hay will totally die out,” Baca said. “The older fields should be OK, if we get some August rains. New grass pastures will take a real bad beating.”
Baca pointed out that he’s decreased his irrigating quite a bit. “We only water once between cuttings,” he said.
The drought of 1956 was one of the most severe, according to David Chavez, a full-time farmer near the new police station in Los Lunas.
“If you talk to old-timers, they’ll tell you it was real bad in 1956,” Chavez said of farmers who had to pump water out of the irrigation ditches.
For now, Chavez is not thinking about 1956. The drought is forcing him to sell 50 head of cattle, and he’s only keeping nine.
“I’m just praying I’ll get a good price on my cattle,” Chavez said. “I farm full-time for a living. I’m not part-time.”