Increasing drought is causing the western United States to crave water

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – Tumbleweeds drift along the Rio Grande, while sandpits within its banks expand. Smoke from distant forest fires and dust kicked up by intense spring winds fill the valley and exacerbate the feeling of distress that begins to weigh on residents.

One of North America’s longest rivers, the Rio Grande, is another example of a waterway in the western United States that has been drained.

From the Northwest Pacific to the Colorado River Basin, irrigation districts are already warning farmers to expect less this year despite growing demand driven by increasingly dry conditions. Climate experts say March marked the third month in a row with below-average rainfall across the United States, and areas of record drought are growing in the West.

On Thursday, federal water managers shared their annual operating plan for the Rio Grande, a major water source for millions of people and thousands of square miles of farmland in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. They think they can keep the river afloat, but that will depend on the weather.

Ed Kandl, a hydrologist at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said warmer temperatures will affect supplies, but relief may come if summer monsoons develop. “We just have to see what happens,” he said.

Mark Garcia, who farms about 400 acres (160 acres) with his family in Valencia County, just south of Albuquerque, ran the numbers. He has a degree in mathematics and taught arithmetic for years before retiring and returning to the farm full time.

He found that his family would be compensated for not watering about half of its land this year, and more water would be left in the river to help New Mexico pay off a debt that has grown as it grows. the state does not live up to its obligations to supply water to neighboring Texas.

“Logically, it was almost like a no-brainer,” Garcia said of joining the set-aside program. “The risk analysis was, I had to take it, I had to do it. However, I did not want to.”

As he sat in his backhoe in one of his fields, Garcia began to get emotional. He said he grew up watching his father cultivate the land.

“I was born into this,” he said. “The hard thing for me is that I feel like I do not want the government to pay for me not to work. I have a problem with that.”

The state of New Mexico and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District hope more farmers can make the difficult choice – at least long enough to help leaders deal with the outstanding water debt. The district oversees the irrigation of more than 260 square kilometers of farmland along a 280-kilometer stretch of the Rio Grande Valley north and south of Albuquerque.

Even it recognizes that the program is a temporary solution.

Casey Ish, a water resources specialist in the district, said more than 200 irrigators have signed up and officials are targeting fields that are less productive or need to rest.

“For us, this is just one tool and one way the district is trying to help the state manage the state’s compact debt, but we certainly do not expect to drag a third or half of the district into a set-aside program year after year,” Ish said. . “It’s not sustainable from a price level or a point of view.”

Thursday’s virtual meeting included estimates of how much the Bureau of Reclamation should work on this season based on predictions about spring runoff and current reservoir levels. Officials said it is possible that the Rio Grande, as it passes through the heart of Albuquerque, may begin to dry up in late August or early September.

With below-average snow cover and reservoirs in some places reaching critically low levels, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in its latest monthly climate report that concerns are mounting that the western drought will intensify.

On the Colorado River, the U.S. Department of the Interior recently proposed keeping the water back in Lake Powell to maintain Glen Canyon Dam’s ability to generate electricity in the midst of what it said were the driest conditions in the region for more than 1,200 years.

The potential effects for lower basin states that could see their water supplies reduced – California, Nevada and Arizona – are not yet known. But the riddle speaks of the far-reaching features of Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, and the need to turn quickly to confront climate change.

In the Northwest Pacific, experts predict one of the driest summers ever, noting that nearly 71% of the Oregon, Washington, and Idaho region is in drought, and nearly a quarter are already experiencing extreme drought.

An irrigation district supplying more than 1,000 farmers and ranchers on the California-Oregon border announced earlier this week that they would receive a fraction of their normal water allocation this year due to drought. This is the third year in a row that severe drought has hit farmers, fish and tribes in a region where there is not enough water to meet competing requirements.

Irrigation districts that supply water to farmers along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and along the Pecos in the east also promise short seasons.

Just north of the border between New Mexico and Colorado, farmers in the San Luis Valley on April 1 turned on their tap, pulling on their share of the Rio Grande. Water managers in New Mexico immediately saw the meters drop, meaning less water will eventually come to central New Mexico.

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