Farmers cope with drought as Texas-New Mexico fight over Rio Grande water

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by Angela Kocherga / KHOU 11 Border Bureau

khou.com

Posted on June 10, 2014 at 12:31 PM

EL PASO, Texas -- As the drought drags on in the southwest and Texas moves forward with a lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water, farmers face another difficult irrigation season.

“It’s pretty tough to try to farm with just a little river water,” said Keith Deputy, a 3rd generation farmer.

 The depleted Rio Grande is at the center of the lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court in January ruled Texas can proceed with a lawsuit over management of Rio Grande water.

 Texas alleges New Mexico is diverting water upstream with wells and pumping near the river.

 New Mexico argues water rights along the river predate the 1938 Rio Grande agreement and Texas is trying to get more than its fair share under the agreement.

 New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has accused Texas of “water rustling.” He is now the Democratic candidate for governor.

 Deputy’s land straddles the state line and so do his friendships with fellow farmers.

 “Those guys over there are my friends and these guys up here are my friends,” said Deputy.

 Like other farmers in this region he faces tough choices as irrigation season begins.

 “There’s still not enough water to go the whole season if you don’t have irrigation well,” said Deputy.

 Relying on the Rio Grande is risky so many farmers have resorted to wells and carefully plan how they’ll use the limited supply of river water.

 “Once the crops demand the water for a farmer it’s basically 24-7 for 100 days,” said Deputy standing on the side of a dusty field as a tractor plants corn.

 “We don’t want to plant too early because we don’t want to have to pump water on it in the heat of summer,” said Deputy.

 Temperatures in the region topped triple digits breaking records this past week.

 While planting corn, he may use the irrigation water for his mature pecan trees in New Mexico.   

 “I’ve got 600 acres in Texas and I’m not farming 200. I have 1800 acres in New Mexico and I’m not farming 400-500 because they don’t have wells,” said Deputy.

The Rio Grande not only irrigates farmland but also provides half the water that comes out of the faucet for El Paso during this time of year when water is released from Elephant Butte reservoir.

“Water levels at Elephant Butte Reservoir reached historic lows last summer,” said Mary Carlson, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Reclamation's Albuquerque office.

“The reservoir recovered slightly due in part to some good monsoons in September and in May, when the current irrigation season began, was at 18.5 percent capacity. Last year at this time it was at 11 percent of total storage capacity, said Carlson.

But The Bureau of Reclamation expects the “reservoir will likely drop significantly again this summer.”

Until the snow comes in Colorado or the upper Rio Grande, it’s probably just going to get tougher and tougher,” said Deputy.

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