March Update - 2021 Water Outlook

Posted by Karen Ray
March 22, 2021

(Contacts:  Gary Esslinger EBID Treasurer-Manager and Dr. Phil King –  jpking@kingengr.com)

The 2021 water year is shaping up to be a very difficult one for the Rio Grande Project (RPG) which provides river water to Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), the El Paso Irrigation District, and Mexico. The RGP had a relatively good supply in 2019, but in 2020, the spring runoff was only 15 percent of average, and EBID got through last year largely with left-over 2019 water. In the graph below, snowpack in the Rio Grande headwaters is shown for 2018 in blue, 2019 in red, 2020 in green, and 2021 in black.  The plentiful runoff from 2019 was used up last year, and unfortunately the 2021 spring runoff is looking a lot more like 2020 than 2019.

Storage in Elephant Butte is currently at about 9.5 percent of capacity. The very low starting reservoir storage means that it is certain EBID will have a late start to our surface water season. In discussions with the El Paso District, EBID is planning on releasing water from Caballo at the end of May to begin diversions on June first.

Current snowpack and year-to-date precipitation are below average, and weather forecasts suggest little improvement through the rest of the snow season. In the table below, Snow Water Equivalent is the water content of the snowpack in each basin. Precipitation includes both snowfall and rain. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is predicting only 35 percent of average spring runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir. The poor spring runoff outlook means that EBID will very likely have a critically short allotment, somewhere around four inches.

The District went through a similar season in 2013, when they had an allotment of 3.5 inches and only released water from Caballo Dam for 47 days. This year, EBID anticipates running from June 1 through perhaps July 1. Their strategy will be to maximize use of the system’s capacity to maximize conveyance efficiency. This will maximize the amount of surface water the District can deliver to farms.

EBID encourages its members to plan for this short year, recognizing that we will all need to make difficult decisions. There is no doubt that this will be a challenging year for farming in EBID. The District will be running fast and furious, so agricultural producers should get their water orders in before June 1. EBID can’t wait for orders to trickle in, and wants to ensure its members get their water in the narrow window available. EBID and its members have been through tough years before and done well. They are confident that, with cooperation and communication, they can get the most out of this year’s limited water supply.