Re-Reclaiming the West: EBID’s vision for a more stable future

Karen Ray

Elephant Butte Irrigation District’s vision for ensuring a more stable water future involves working collaboratively with a variety of entities to accomplish a multitude of goals. The region’s needs are extensive and the District’s funding is short. The time has come for all to optimize the use of ever scarcer water resources.

The District hosted a two day tour for a large group including representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the NM Office of the State Engineer (OSE), State contracted engineering firms, the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and others.

Jennifer Faler, BOR’s Area Manager, stated that the BOR is in the process of having conversations to determine what data exists, what the uncertainties are, and what the data gaps are to begin funding with state and federal funds. The focus is on “Go Big or Go Home” infrastructure projects that can be implemented in the next five years. Faler said, “…better managing stormwater and groundwater recharge is a way we can help our Rio Grande Project.”

Tour members focused on looking for ways to access funding opportunities from multiple sources. EBID outlined specific projects, including some that are shovel-ready, that may be possible candidates for this targeted work. Dr. Patrick Sullivan, EBID Manager, and the rest of the District team expressed gratitude that the agency representatives and others on the tour want to be part of the solution.

EBID is funded by a finite number of dollars, Sullivan explained, all derived from member assessments. “It simply is not enough to address the vital needs of aging infrastructure and water conservation while keeping up with regular maintenance,” he said, “It becomes a matter of economics. So, most of these projects, we think they’re great, we don't have the money to do them. That's the bottom line. That's where we're going have to identify some real partnerships between both the federal government and state government to leverage the necessary resources to hopefully bring something in this package to fruition.”

Water enters EBID’s system differently now, as it does throughout the West. Large snowpack and runoff events are less reliable than they were 100 years ago when the West was dealing with runoff creating torrential rivers in the springtime requiring large dam and storage projects. Today’s conditions most often display very little spring runoff and late starts to irrigation seasons. In addition, short, intense storms at uncharacteristic times of the year bring large volumes of water to small areas with almost no notice.

While farmland is often at risk of flooding, which can cause property damage and crop loss, flood prone areas are also often residential, underserved, lower income communities with inadequate flood control capacity. Failure to address the hydrologic changes playing out across the West subjects these communities to increasing risk both now and in the future. EBID urged federal and state agency representatives to work together to accomplish the most possible with the variety of funding sources currently available to protect these communities and farmers into the future.

EBID’s vision for ensuring a more stable future involves combining engineered solutions with natural ones to accomplish multiple goals within each individual project. They envision a system that incorporates watershed and wild arroyo management into the existing network of flood control and water conveyance structures. New infrastructure would be added as needed with the goal of capturing or slowing down as much water as high up in the watersheds as possible. This would facilitate managed and targeted aquifer recharge while also addressing related flooding issues such as sediment and debris. Additionally, slowing water down higher in watersheds creates the added benefit of more healthy natural environments.

Such projects are abundant within the District and would enable the increasingly populated agricultural valley to properly adjust to the changing hydrology that has in recent years caused massive amounts of property damage, and even loss of life.

Goals for some of EBID’s proposed multiuse projects include:

• Creating dedicated recharge to ensure a resilient aquifer system

• Creating and enhancing existing flood control measures and structures

• Creating safer communities in underprivileged areas

• Creating community park and recreation areas

• Restoring and improving flood plain connections to river and District facilities

• Restoring habitat, both upland and riparian

Samantha Barncastle, EBID legal counsel, said, “We view all of these as multifaceted projects that don’t necessarily just benefit EBID irrigators, but they benefit the community at large: habitat, stormwater capture, flood control, all of those things that impact small communities. Historically EBID has been one of the only ones having a handle on these issues. We’re no longer able to do the kind of flood control projects we previously did because now we’re protecting subdivisions, not farmland, and very different standards apply.”

These changes would also help protect the valley against drought for a longer period of time than the current aging infrastructure alone. Sullivan emphasized that the District’s proposed projects provide multiple “opportunities to capture stormwater to do some recharge in the shallow aquifer that could really provide some true, long-term benefits.”

This would enable farmers to continue to produce crops in what is one of the most economically viable agricultural regions in the West. Our nation’s food security and future depends on large visions such as EBID’s. A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” So it is with water stewardship projects. It is vital that the Federal and State governments share our urgency in implementing this vision in a timely manner.

Barncastle explained, “The reason we've titled this tour Re-Reclaiming the West is because we're going to have to re-reclaim the West. The large storage facilities and the delivery of water from snowpack runoff is not happening anymore. But the stormwater, the isolated incidents that come in really intense, short periods of time are where there is water.” The District hopes that by capturing this water they can in effect “make” new water from an historically underutilized source.

John Longworth, Senior Executive Engineer Advisor with the OSE, mentioned participating in the state engineer’s Water Task Force recently with EBID’s hydrology consultant Dr. Phil King. He said the group, “…came away with some really interesting recommendations, some broad ones, but I think ones we can lean into a little bit to help support getting money down here to fix some of these problems. The two things that jumped out in my mind [are] just straight ag infrastructure, number one, and the second is recharge, those are things that they're looking at, and get getting broad support.”

King also participated in the recent Leap Ahead Analysis to examine climate change scenarios that the state will face in the next 50 years in the realm of water planning. He said, “In this particular water taskforce we deal by consensus, and we've got a very diverse group, from Audubon to Marathon Oil at the other and we've got pueblos and irrigation districts, municipalities, a very diverse group. One thing that we all agreed on was that we ought to be using state funding to leverage federal funding.”

EBID is a firm believer in the need to capture and account for every drop of water possible. Entities all working in collaboration can be a prime example of projects moving forward from paper analyses and actually coming to fruition through the hard work of all. “We're hoping that we can settle on some things in here that we can all buy into,” Sullivan stressed, “and then work together to try to leverage the necessary resources to actually get these things going.”