Irrigation District Pivots as Water Season Closes

Karen Ray

Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s 2022 surface water irrigation season has drawn to a close. Final irrigation orders were delivered to farms throughout the District in late July. Irrigation Systems Director James Narvaez reported an estimated season total of  82,302 acre feet of surface water diverted to District members’ water-righted acreage. This translates to 4,201 irrigation deliveries over 71,741 acres of various food and fiber crops (preliminary numbers). He said that extremely careful management of water resources and deliveries helped the District remain close to its estimated delivery target this year. Final numbers are expected by the September EBID  Board meeting.

The District’s hydrology consultant, Dr. Phil King, said that he expects to have preliminary end-of-year water accounting numbers available by the next EBID Board meeting in September. As of the August board meeting, Mexico, and El Paso County Water Improvement District No.1 (EP1) had not shut down their irrigation deliveries yet but are expected to do so soon. King says Elephant Butte Reservoir is seeing about 1700 acre-feet per day of inflow at the time of the Board meeting due to the monsoonal runoff, but it is vey unsteady. This additional moisture has provided temporarily drought relief and benefitted farmers and irrigation districts upstream and downstream of Elephant Butte Dam.

King is expecting low soil moisture in the watershed to cause low spring runoff next year in a repeat of this year. Drought conditions are likely to intensify again after the monsoon ends as the La Nina weather pattern is predicted to intensify into winter.

The District’s maintenance efforts jump into action after the active surface water delivery season ends. Maintenance Director Leo Barrett reports that his crews are currently handling post water season maintenance. Because this is still the active growing season much of that work consists of weed control. However, they are also working with excavators cleaning out drains, cleaning up trash that accumulated near and in canals, and continuing the war on invasive horsetail weeds. “We’re attacking exactly the trouble spots the ditch riders reported during the season,” Barrett said.

Another aspect of the District’s post-season work is evaluation of gates and turnouts to determine if any need repair or replacement.  EBID’s Engineering Department, headed by Zack Libbin, PE, will work with Barrett’s department to engineer and construct the needed gates. These will be installed along with other infrastructure construction work as they head into fall and winter. 

EBID’s extensive groundwater monitoring system is another integral part of the District’s water resource management. Under the direction of Dr. Erek Fuchs, the Groundwater Resources Department provides real-time measurements using data provided by Patrick Lopez, Director of the District’s SCADA Department. The SCADA team maintains an extensive network of monitoring sensors and wells online, providing crucial data throughout the year. 

Dr. Fuchs explains that he uses that information both in real-time and annually to closely evaluate the shallow aquifer interaction with the riverbed during the initial surface water release (June 1 this year) through shutdown.  He says, “As expected, river and diversion efficiency along most reaches of the Rio Grande below Caballo was reduced following the initial release, due in part to the carryover effects of last year’s similarly small allotment (4.0 acre-inches per acre).” This led to limited recharge of the groundwater aquifer, in keeping with the long-term impacts of ongoing drought.  

Accumulated riverbed sand and sediment and development of dense vegetation on sandbars, are ongoing problems endemic to the Rio Grande. They continue to contribute to impaired conveyance efficiency. This is a major contributing factor in the longer time it took this year to push water to downstream users in EP1 and Mexico.  EBID takes an active role in working with other entities on river channel maintenance and watershed health measures to help address this issue.

Although Dr. Fuchs says the impacts of previous groundwater withdrawals have been compounded by impacts ongoing this year, the shallow aquifer system continues to demonstrate resilience in terms of a rapid response to available recharge. Challenges with climatic variability continue to pose problems. However, they also bring opportunities to capture stormwater and to use it to induce shallow aquifer recharge. EBID has proactively developed many sites with the ability to capture this stormwater and put it to beneficial use and will continue to pursue additional opportunities. The District closely monitors aquifer conditions throughout the growing season.

 “EBID has been awarded a Bureau of Reclamation WaterSmart grant,” Lopez notes, “which responds to drought in this region through implementing key priority projects that develop and modernize its infrastructure to facilitate watershed-scale flow management, stormwater capture, and aquifer recharge.” The District’s ability to accurately monitor storms is dependent on an extensive network of weather stations and rain gauges strategically placed in key watershed regions. Lopez says this grant will help provide the funds for expansion and improvement of that network.

EBID’s annual irrigation and maintenance cycle, as regular as farmers’ planting and harvesting seasons, continues as employees “change hats” to perform the critical work needed to keep the 106-year-old system in prime condition for the difficult water supply conditions we are facing.


(photo courtesy of Zack Libbin, PE)