In arid New Mexico, water is the most valuable resource. For centuries, farmers have diligently worked to harness it. Water has been so scarce that irrigation channels were dug long before fields were cleared or houses were built in the area.
Such is the story of the Elephant Butte Dam, a 300-foot-high dam on the Rio Grande River near the city of Truth or Consequences, which was built only
a few years after New Mexico became a state in 1912.
The dam’s reservoir provides water for agriculture in the southern part of the state and west Texas. The Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), one of the two irrigation districts within the Rio Grande Project, organized in 1919, determines annual water allotments to 90,640 acres of farmland under its jurisdiction.
El Agua Es Vida: Water Is Life
“Here in southern New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District provides, ensures and guarantees that farmers get a supply of surface water to their crops each year,” says Gary Esslinger, EBID manager. “Farming is their livelihood, and when you’re in a drought, it’s not easy to get an adequate amount of river water released, diverted and delivered timely when their crops demand it.”
Esslinger says EBID staff and the governing board of directors spend months ahead of the upcoming irrigation season studying winter storm forecasts and runoff predictions for the snow pack at Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado and the higher elevation mountains in New Mexico. Ultimately, the final allotment is based on actual storage in the Elephant Butte reservoir before the irrigation season begins.
“The farmers need to know in plenty of time whether there’s enough surface water to grow a crop. If not, they also need to have in mind the reliability of their own irrigation wells to supplement groundwater to make up the difference. We’re trying to give the farmer as much information and time as possible so he’ll have some planning range for what he intends to grow that year,” Esslinger says.
Making the most of every drop of water is pecangrower Greg Daviet’s top management priority. “It’s so critical to our success when growing pecans that it receives the lion’s share of our attention,” he says.
Daviet is operations manager at Dixie Ranch near Las Cruces, an operation started by his great- grandfather in 1905. The EBID delivers surface water for flood irrigating Daviet’s pecan crop each year. He further manages his water needs with his own wells and practices including amending soils to improve water-holding capacity, leveling fields with lasers to improve water delivery efficiency, and replacing ditches with pipelines to reduce water losses.
Robert Faubion, vice president of the EBID board of directors, who also farms north of Las Cruces, says he can’t overstate the importance of Elephant Butte to the agriculture industry.
“Agriculture would not exist anywhere close to the scale that it does today without the Rio Grande project and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District,” says Faubion, a fourth-generation farmer growing alfalfa, corn, cotton and chile in the Mesilla Valley.
“It stabilized a relatively sporadic water resource, allowing a tremendous growth in agriculture here. I know I wouldn’t be here without the EBID.”
Faubion says one reason the EBID works is because farmers are conscientious stewards of water. For example, he invested in a more expensive subsurface drip irrigation system that has allowed him to significantly cut his surface water usage and dependence on the EBID allotment.
“We’re continually fine-tuning our irrigation practices to maximize the use of that water, because now, in light of the drought, a significant portion of our irrigation comes from our irrigation wells. It doesn’t come from the river,” Faubion says. “In the past, when we’ve had full allotment years of surface water, the majority of our irrigation water came from the river, and we didn’t have to pump very much. It’s becoming increasingly more costly to apply the quantity of water that our crops need to grow, so it’s even more critical that we do whatever we can to maximize the usefulness of that application.”
Faubion says farmers have been employing new technologies and irrigation practices to manage water usage long before the current drought.
“We’ve been intensively leveling our fields for about 40 years now to provide the most efficient flood irrigation that we can,” he adds. “Any businessman knows that you don’t want to be wasteful with your resources, whether you’ve got plenty of them or not.”