June 28, 2023

Legislators hear the importance of water infrastructure amid climate change, new Rio Grande requirements

Laura Paskus

Downstream of Elephant Butte Dam, water issues get even trickier.

Elephant Butte Irrigation District Manager Gary Esslinger showed legislators a graph on Tuesday depicting the amount of water released and stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir over the decades.

“The graph that you see here is what is represented as a hydrographic, hydrologic history of the (Rio Grande) Project,” he said. “You can also call it a climate change pattern. You can also call it a living water testimony. I call it my career.”

The graph shows periods of drought in the Lower Rio Grande Valley during times like the 1950s, when Esslinger was a child living on a farm in the valley. Esslinger has been working as the EBID manager for more than 40 years, starting off his career in 1978. 

The graph shows storage and release from Elephant Butte. He said from 1951 until 1978, drought limited the water supply in the reservoir.

“Farmers responded by doing what? Drilling wells to provide the supplement that they were not getting from the surface water,” he said.

As Esslinger began his role as EBID manager, the district’s water fortunes changed. For 23 years, the farmers benefited from a full supply of water. 

That has since changed. 

In 2003, the Lower Rio Grande Valley entered a drought that persists today.

“If we didn’t have a groundwater system, agricultural farming would likely not exist,” Esslinger said.

But relying on groundwater for irrigation has caused the aquifer to decline and the use of groundwater by farmers in New Mexico led to a lawsuit Texas filed against the state in 2013, which resulted in a proposed settlement agreement earlier this year.

Members of the Legislative Finance Committee heard about the impacts of this lawsuit and proposed settlement on New Mexico on Tuesday during a meeting in Las Cruces. The meeting discussion largely focused on the state of the Rio Grande and the need for infrastructure to help improve system efficiency in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Under the proposed settlement, both New Mexico and Texas can continue their use of groundwater. The amount of water that New Mexico delivers to Texas through the Rio Grande will be determined using an index accounting for both groundwater and surface water depletions. This index calculation will be measured at the state line.

“We’ve got this impending settlement which is going to put a new set of constraints on the way we operate,” EBID engineering consultant Phil King said. “Because now not only do we have to get our water to the farmers, and to Texas and Mexico to meet their Rio Grande Project orders, but we also will have to meet this new state line index, which is a bit trickier than meeting the index at Elephant Butte.”

Infrastructure is needed to meet demands

King said infrastructure will be key to meeting those requirements.

“Let me start by saying that this infrastructure is absolutely necessary to adapt to this changing climate that we’re in. It is necessary but not sufficient, we’re definitely going to have to change the way we administer our water,” he said.

The infrastructure changes he has suggested include improving flood control.

“We would like to make direct use of more stormwater,” he said. “The system we have was really designed and built in the early part of the 20th century. We’re now in a different climate with different uses, and we need to adapt our system to fit those.”

Using stormwater could also mean taking less water out of the aquifer, which King said could help with aquifer recharge, or refilling of the groundwater reservoir.

Later, in response to questions posed by Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, regarding alternatives to paying farmers not to plant fields, King once again pointed to infrastructure as low-hanging fruit. 

He said infrastructure like an arroyo to canal drain cannot make up for the change in inflows, but “will minimize the amount of belt tightening that we have to do.”

Climate change is impacting how much water is needed

These changes in inflows are largely due to climate change, which has reduced the amount of water available.

Sam Fernald, the director of the Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University, explained how climate change has impacted the Rio Grande system.

He said climate change has led to 20 to 50 percent less runoff from snowmelt and, at the same time, increased evaporation.

“The atmosphere is actually getting thirstier because of warmer temperatures,” Fernald said.

That translates to crops needing 15 percent more water to meet their needs.

“And that means there’s been a need to pump more groundwater because there’s less surface water,” he said.

Fernald said the Water Resources Research Institute has identified various ways that New Mexico can address this. Some of these include changing land use, growing different types of crops and changing regulations to allow farmers to retain water for more than 96 hours so that it can recharge the aquifer.

He said farmers have expressed concerns that if they don’t use the water, they will lose their right to those waters due to the water right laws in New Mexico.

High runoff this year does not necessarily mean New Mexico can pay off its water debt to Texas

This year, a cool, wet spring has kept water in stretches of the Rio Grande that usually run dry during the summer, but State Engineer Mike Hamman said that doesn’t necessarily mean New Mexico will be able to reduce the water debt it owes Texas. 

New Mexico owed just under 100,000 acre-feet of water to Texas at the end of 2022.

“The assumption is that a very big year will help us make up our debit supplies,” Hamman said. “It does to some extent, assuming that we have an efficient delivery down to Elephant Butte. But if we have a dry summer without monsoon rains, sometimes we can go deeper into debt than what you might expect.”

He said that is what happened in 2019, which is when New Mexico began accruing the current debt it owes Texas.

While New Mexico and Texas may have reached a potential settlement, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, warned that it isn’t over yet and said the settlement could lead to future water fights between northern and southern New Mexico over the Rio Grande’s water.

He said the way the Rio Grande is managed is different in the Middle Rio Grande Valley than it is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The Lower Rio Grande Valley has to meter every drop of water and fights over water rights in court. It is a heavily adjudicated system, Cervantes said.

Meanwhile, the Middle Rio Grande Valley has not been adjudicated, he said.

Cervantes said the proposed settlement in the Texas v. New Mexico lawsuit is not a done deal. The court-appointed special master has not ruled on the proposed settlement and, Cervantes said, the ruling will then be subject to the U.S. Supreme Court’s review. 

Cervantes said that the proposed agreement may settle the dispute between New Mexico and Texas, but “all it really does is kick the can down the road because it creates the fight now between New Mexicans. All the proposed settlement does is resolve things with Texas by saying we’ve got to deliver more water at the state line. And how are we going to do that? It’s going to be north versus south.”