Technology Aids District in Adapting to Drought

Karen Ray

Throughout its 106 year old history, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and its over 6700 members have witnessed numerous droughts as well as wet seasons of plenty.

The District’s primary purpose of delivering surface water has evolved over the last century to encompass the latest technology and innovations to help ensure farmers have what they need to sustain healthy farms. EBID managers past and present have participated in regional water planning and developed creative methods for managing and conserving water. Their goal is to work as part of a cohesive effort to help agricultural producers contribute to the economic health, vitality, and beauty of their communities.

One way EBID addresses the practical challenges of long term drought and climate change is through the work of its SCADA Systems Department. The acronym stands for “supervisory control and data acquisition” and refers to software used to gather real time data from remote locations to aid an organization’s processes. Often used in industrial situations, SCADA is uniquely suited to also help irrigation districts like EBID monitor the varied aspects of their water management and delivery systems. The District’s system was initially developed over 25 years ago with a few telemetry monitoring sites on Rio Grande river stations and the District’s diversion headings at Percha Dam, Leasburg Dam, and Mesilla Dam. Department director Patrick Lopez has continually upgraded and expanded his system capabilities.

Lopez uses a variety of tools to capture data and enable the District to monitor everything water related, from storms over the watershed to groundwater depth and aquifer resiliency. The SCADA Systems Department currently monitors approximately 450 field sites that cover almost 100 miles of EBID jurisdiction.  The sites communicate using UHF radio frequency line of sight paths that utilize several mountain repeater sites to ensure timely data. The system polls each site every 30 minutes for near real-time monitoring of all water activity within the District’s boundaries.

EBID uses this water data in a number of ways to improve on-farm delivery efficiency through 338 miles of canals and laterals delivering surface water irrigation to 90,640 acres of water righted land in New Mexico.

EBID’s SCADA system also monitors weather stations, rain gauges, flood control dams, and arroyo channels to track storm activity. This provides vital early warning for public safety and helps the District capture additional stormwater inflows to aid in aquifer replenishment. EBID’s RTU network also reports groundwater levels at 71 monitoring wells. The District’s Groundwater and SCADA departments work together to monitor and improve groundwater aquifer health by putting captured stormwater where it matters the most. 

In 2021, the SCADA Systems department began collecting observed gravity meter readings at 23 groundwater monitoring sites periodically throughout the year.  This data is provided to the Groundwater Resources Department to assess aquifer change of storage and further explore the interconnection of surface water release and groundwater health.

During the 2022-2023 offseason Lopez and his team will be working on a grant project centered around increasing the District’s stormwater monitoring network. Funding for this priority project is provided by a Bureau of Reclamation Drought Resiliency WaterSmart grant. The District plans to install 16 additional rain gauges. Lopez says, “Accurate storm monitoring is dependent on an extensive network of weather stations and rain gauges strategically placed in key watershed regions. The primary focus of our proposal is the expansion and improvement of our storm monitoring network.”

At three critical arroyo monitoring sites, EBID will upgrade their data collection and water level monitoring by installing three radar water level sensors. Installation of automated gates at four stormwater capture sites located near EBID canal diversions in the Leasburg and Mesilla areas will further enhance the District’s stormwater capture initiative.

Another component of the grant project will be the construction of a new Rio Grande metering cable located between the Hatch/Rincon and Mesilla Valleys near the original Hayner Bridge north of Las Cruces.  Rio Grande flow monitoring at this location will account for stormwater flow totals originating from the Rincon Valley that can be captured for on-farm use or aquifer replenishment in the Leasburg and Mesilla areas of the District. 

Additionally, the Dona Ana County Flood Commission, one of the District’s collaborative partners in watershed health initiatives, will be installing two weather stations near the headwaters of the Rincon arroyo watershed as part of this grant. Monitoring of watershed-scale runoff flow will be an integral part of managing this watershed’s health. This watershed is one of the primary sources for both runoff and sediment accumulation in the Rio Grande.