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Warm winter worries NM farmers who need snowmelt

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December 27, 2010 02:00 PM EST | AP

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Farmers who rely on runoff from winter snowfall are worried about a predicted weather pattern of warmer, drier winter weather in New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Farmers in southern New Mexico rely on the runoff once it reaches Elephant Butte Lake in the spring and summer.

Right now, there's not much water stored in reservoirs that's designated for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

The district has only about 16,000 acre-feet of water in reservoirs, said a district hydrologist, James Narvaez.

In 2010, the district distributed 282,000 acre-feet of water to farmers, so by comparison, 16,000 acre-feet "is essentially zero," Narvaez said. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of up to two U.S. households.

The current storage means the amount of water the district can distribute next spring will depend on winter snowfall in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, Narvaez said.

The district has been conservative in distributing water in the past few years, waiting until snowmelt reaches the reservoir before deciding what allocation farmers will receive in the spring.

Since farmers cannot wait until runoff begins reaching Elephant Butte Lake late May or June to make planting decisions, the small amount of stored water will have an impact on growers, said onion farmer Bobby Kuykendall of Anthony.

"Basically what that's going to mean is we're going to rely on the subsurface water wells for at least the first five months of 2011," he said.

Kuykendall, who farms about 800 acres, said he has about 125 acres without access to wells. With the current water outlook, that acreage likely will remain fallow, he said.

Elephant Butte Irrigation District board member Tom Simpson agreed farmers will have to turn to ground wells or buy water, if possible, to survive a short water year.

Kuykendall said the additional cost of pumping groundwater will mean a smaller profit margin for farmers, but is not likely to mean higher prices for consumers. That's because most markets are national or global, meaning Dona Ana County's influence on prices isn't significant.

Some farmers have said more of Dona Ana County's acreage could be planted with cotton in 2011, since cotton uses less water on average than other crops.


Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News,