Health

Drought dents growing season for New Mexico farmers

A much-welcomed misty drizzle dampened rows of chile and Mario Rosales’ flannel shirt as he crouched to push dirt into the cracked soil at the base of one plant.

Filling in the cracks that formed in the recent sweltering days will seal the soil so it retains the water it receives both from irrigation and from above, Rosales explained while patting the dirt to finish a task a machine normally does.

The 100-degree heat of the previous week wilted the plants by early afternoon and made the field work more tiring, he said. But the wet weather on that recent day was boosting the plants.

A light summer rain is a godsend to New Mexico farmers who have faced grim forecasts for months.

“They say that farmers are the biggest gamblers. We don’t know what it’s going to do from one day to the next,” said Rosales, who grows 60 acres of chile and a couple hundred acres of alfalfa on his small, family-owned farm in Lemitar, a hamlet within the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

The entire Southwest has been in a drought, with a few intermittent wet years, since the late 1990s, as a changing climate warms temperatures and reduces water flows.

The Colorado River and Rio Grande — which supply water for irrigation, drinking and commercial uses — are flowing at their lowest levels in decades. This year, federal water managers expect to dispense almost 40 percent less than the full allocation of surface water to the region, the slimmest amount in at least 20 years.

Water that originates in the Colorado River Basin is funneled through the federal San Juan-Chama Project, a system of tunnels and diversions, where it merges with the Rio Grande. The decreased supply will force growers and cities like Santa Fe to pump more groundwater from wells.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District delayed the start of this year’s growing season by 30 days on April 1 — which led to some farmers receiving their first delivery of irrigation water six weeks later than last year.

The district also warned farmers that river water supply was expected to run out by mid-July, and they’d be on their own after that.

Pumping groundwater is much more costly for farmers. Those without pumps will be forced either to gamble — betting on a strong summer monsoon to replenish the rivers — or to forgo planting and take a loss.

Few growers are fallowing their fields.

Rosales’ wife, Linda, said using well water could add $10,000 to seasonal costs, partly because the price of diesel and propane to run their three pumps is rising.

She said they’ll have no problem watering their chile, even if the higher costs slice into the profits, but they might lose 100 acres of alfalfa that isn’t near any pumps. The alfalfa they sell as feed to ranchers pays for most of their overhead, so it’s a loss they will feel, she said.

Diminished water supply and the increasing difficulty in finding field workers led them to trim their chile operation by 40 percent five years ago, she said.

If the severe drought drags on indefinitely, they might have to cut back even more on chile and perhaps reach a point when they don’t plant any, she added.

For now, she isn’t ready to accept such bleak scenarios.

“We’ve got to keep the faith and keep on, and maybe Mother Nature will take care of us,” she said.

Shorter season, bigger challenges

Climate-induced drought is the latest challenge farmers face within the state’s $3.4 billion agriculture industry.

New Mexico remains the nation’s top chile producer, even though the acreage harvested had a steep decline from 34,000 in 1992 to about 9,000 by 2010, according to the New Mexico Chile Association. State data shows harvests have stayed roughly at that plateau ever since.

The trade group has blamed competition from Mexico for the state’s reduced chile production, saying Mexico is able to export lower-priced chile to the U.S. because of cheaper labor and less regulation. Farmers complain they are having more trouble finding people to do the hard field work in the summer heat, and the labor shortage worsened during the coronavirus pandemic.

But farmers agree a hotter, drier climate and the struggle to obtain irrigation water are also serious problems that could take a toll on chile and other crops.

Mario Rosales said that for now, the more established farms such as his and the big chile operations farther south will be fine.

When there’s no river water to pull from ditches, they can pump groundwater, he said. The smaller growers who lack the permits or the money to buy pumps could be in trouble, he said.

Glen Duggins, a neighboring farmer in Lemitar and president of the chile association, was more blunt.

“If you don’t have supplemental water, you’re dead,” said Duggins, who grows chile, alfalfa and corn on 400 acres.

Most farmers can withstand an occasional punishing year, whether it’s drought or destructive hailstorms, Duggins said. But the back-to-back drought years are tough to take.

To make up for the shorter season, Duggins said he bought 300,000 partially mature chile plants, rather than cultivating the entire crop from seeds.

The transplanting will add thousands of dollars to his normal overhead, he said. He’s also losing money by leaving 35 acres fallow, something he has never had to do before.

Transplanting was the only way to produce a decent batch of chile by the August harvest time, Duggins said, adding you can’t extend the schedule because no one wants to buy chile in October.

“It’s like selling pumpkins in July,” he said.

Rosales said the shorter season will likely result in a below-average yield on his farm, but the quality of the peppers should be as good or better than in past years.

He walked between two rows of chile and pointed to a plant with a single bud. In a normal season, most of the plants would have chile beyond the bud stage hanging from the branches, he said.

Still, he doesn’t plan to pick any later than the normal harvest time and is confident the peppers will grow to a reasonable size by then. If they’re smaller and a little less mature, they’ll have some extra bite to them, he added.

Crews might glean closer to the 250 sacks of chile per acre that they did last year, rather than the 400 sacks collected in a very good year, he said. A sack is 35 pounds.

But his family will get through a difficult period and live to farm another year, he said.

Climate double whammy

In the coming years, farmers might have go even further in adapting to a changing climate.

Federal data collected on seasonal water at the Otowi gauge on the northern Rio Grande shows the state was immersed in an extremely dry stretch in the 1950s and early ’60s, then enjoyed a mostly wet period from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s before entering the current drought.

The drought that has gripped the Southwest for more than 20 years is shaping up to become a megadrought that could persist for many years, according to a recent study published in Science magazine.

A megadrought is defined as lasting for several decades. Scientists used tree rings to estimate past centuries’ soil moisture and, in turn, the intensity of droughts.

Some people compare current drought conditions to those in the 1950s, but you have to go back to the megadrought in the late 1500s to find one of similar severity, said Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at UCLA and the study’s lead author.

Of course, there were no industrial greenhouse gases warming the planet 400 years ago, Williams said. That drought would’ve stemmed from natural factors such as an extended La Niña, a Pacific Ocean weather pattern that pushes storms northward, leaving the Southwest drier.

The region is now in the midst of climate change and a La Niña, which are combining to create an exceptional drought, Williams said.

“The West’s capacity for bad luck is really, really bad,” Williams said.

A state climatologist has noted the Southwest’s average temperature has increased by a degree per decade for at least the past 40 years.

Williams said the warming trend is largely due to the industrial sector cleaning up aerosol pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.

These toxic emissions generated the smog that enveloped large cities half a century ago — and while they were harmful to breathe in and should be filtered out, they also had an artificial cooling effect that masked greenhouse warming, Williams said.

A climate scientist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency that manages water, dams and hydropower, said the warmer temperatures have increased evaporation, further depleting the region’s rivers.

“It’s sucking moisture out of our soil, sucking moisture off our reservoirs, just drying us out like we have this constant hair dryer blown on us,” said Dagmar Llewellyn, a hydrologist in the bureau’s water management division.

A key difference in the 1950s drought, which occurred before global warming intensified, was that temperatures remained relatively normal even as precipitation dropped sharply, Llewellyn said. The current drought has hotter temperatures coupled with low precipitation, she said.

Replenishing rivers will be harder because the prolonged drought has dried the soil and made plants thirstier, she said. They absorb more runoff from snowmelt and rain, significantly reducing the amount entering waterways and flowing downstream.

Williams said La Niña is mainly a winter and spring event, so there’s still a chance New Mexico will enjoy a good monsoon. That will be a short-term fix at best, but it will offer some relief to water managers and farmers who are wrestling with the drought, he said.

Praying for rain upstream

The depleted Colorado River, which is a growing concern, is an indirect but vital source of water for New Mexico, feeding the San Juan and Chama rivers as well as supplying reservoirs with water to store.

Water flowing through the San Juan-Chama system supplies Santa Fe, Albuquerque, the conservancy district, Indigenous water rights settlements and aid for endangered species, said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the Interstate Stream Commission.

It also bolsters the Rio Grande, masking how low it is running in the drought, Schmidt-Petersen said. The supply of San Juan-Chama water is now meager, with six pueblos in line ahead of growers, he said.

“It’s going to get pretty tight, pretty quick, if it doesn’t rain,” Schmidt-Petersen said.

Mike Hamman, the conservancy district’s chief engineer and CEO, said he was trying to keep a positive outlook.

By shortening the growing seasons in 2020 and this year, the district amassed enough water to repay Texas the 35,000 acre-feet it borrowed last summer for irrigation, Hamman said, adding the remaining debt to Texas as of May was 66,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot is roughly is 326,000 gallons, enough to supply a household or two for a year.

Meanwhile, the Reclamation Bureau is funding a grant program to pay middle valley farmers to forgo using river water and fallow the land, Hamman said. It’s different from the program that pays farmers in the south valley to halt groundwater irrigation, he said.

So far, about 1,000 acres in the middle valley have been dried up, Hamman said. For the program to be effective, growers need to quit watering closer to half of the valley’s 50,000 acres of active farmland, he said, adding that even then it doesn’t solve the problem of near-empty reservoirs in the summer heat.

“If we get a good monsoon, that will change the picture quickly,” Hamman said.

Duggins said he would welcome monsoon rains — as long as they dump water up north into the river, which would carry it south to the middle valley.

Heavy, extended downpours can damage chile, he said.

Mario Rosales agreed he’d prefer to have monsoon rains elevate the river away from his farm. A few minutes later, he pointed to distant hills shrouded in thick mist and said a storm was approaching.

He took cover in his equipment shop just before torrential rain pelted the metal roof in a rapid barrage.

Rosales said this one cloudburst will be good for his crops. He viewed it as an encouraging sign from “the man upstairs.”

“This is our life,” he said. “We have to look up and keep going.”

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