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Articles 2017


EBID and OSE Work with Farmers on Water Issues
Flood Awareness and Planning in the High Desert
EBID End of Irrigation Season Report
Strong, Safe, Secure: EBID's Role in Dam Maintenance and Security
State Engineer and Elephant Butte Irrigation District Coordinate to Offer Help to Farmers Facing Irrigation Issues
Spotlight on Stormwater
Weed Control 101
EBID Members Receiveing Over-pumping Letters from the OSE
State of the Aquifer: Update with Groundwater Hydrologist Erek Fuchs
National Ag Day: Thank a Farmer
The Road Less Traveled: EBID and the Roads Act
Community Agencies Conduct Dam Breach/Flooding Table Top Exercise


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EBID and OSE Work with Farmers on Water Issues

EBID Report
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In opening remarks at a joint open house held September 7 in Las Cruces by the Office of the State Engineer and Elephant Butte Irrigation District, State Engineer Tom Blaine commented, "This was the first time in over 18 years that the entire state has been out of the drought condition."


Dr. Phil King, chief hydrologist and civil engineering consultant for EBID explained the water situation that led to some over diversion of irrigation water this year. Reservoir storage started off quite low at the beginning of the year. He noted that snowpack over the last several years has been producing less runoff and EBID cautiously watched that situation as they began discussing the 2017 water allocation. This year's late snowfall and late runoff, while beneficial, also caused problems Blaine pointed out. One of these was anticipation.


"Farmers were anticipating that we were going to have a low water yield again this year and a lot of farmers used their groundwater rights early in the year in anticipation of a poor runoff year. As time moved on and into June we started seeing runoff showing up in the reservoir that wasn't anticipated," he said. This is difficult to plan around, he acknowledged, "EBID is kind of walking that tight rope, looking at how do we allocate the water. We don't want to give too much too early because it may never show up. But we want to make sure that we can have water that's available to our farmers and so it's a real balance."


"We wound up at 16 inches in May and went to 24 inches at the June board meeting," King said, "a lot of farmers had pumped two maybe two and a half feet before we came on down here, especially in the Mesilla Valley where we didn't start until late May. So they had to start up their season, irrigate all the way up until late May before they had any surface water in the system." That two foot allotment then "put people right at the brink or even over the brink of that 4.5 acre foot per acre cap that most farmers have, a few of them have proved up to 5.5, with a whole bunch of season left in the year."


Blaine explained, "Diversion of groundwater is simply a function of how much surface water is available. You can use that groundwater to augment or supplement the surface source." The total amount of water that can be used is combined surface and groundwater. If a farmer receives a surface water allotment of 2 feet he can only pump another 2.5 acre feet to stay within his allotted water rights.


The OSE and EBID, Blaine stressed, "are locked arms on this, ready to solve this problem that was created because we had such a great year. The problem that we need to solve is some over diversion. I think the most important thing I want you to take from this meeting is we need to get our meter readings in. Meter readings are extremely important because that's how we administer the water. Even if you have over diverted or think you've over-diverted you're not in trouble. We're down here to work out solutions and figure out how we can navigate through this issue that we're having this year."


Both offices emphasized that in an over diversion situation there is greater flexibility in finding ways to resolve it early in the process. Blaine said, "I want to encourage everybody to communicate with our office because communication is really the key. The main purpose of being down here today is to solve the technical problems. We don't have a legal problem because if we can solve this as a technical problem then everybody is going into the next irrigation season optimistic and whole." He said every season has been different since the start of the District, "It takes a balance and sometimes there's extremes and this is kind of one of those years of extremes."


EBID Board of Directors President Robert Faubion explained, "We all want to manage the aquifer and its resource better, it's about finding solutions to [over diversions] and having a soft landing for everybody down here." He strongly encouraged farmers to use all of their surface water as it is counted in their annual allotment. "If you suspect that you're going to over divert or know that you've over diverted, don't be in a panic, set an appointment up with the local office, go in, maybe it's a question of you were pumping for a neighbor and it wasn't included in your OWMAN plan. The OSE has been very proactive in helping facilitate that kind of "Ill pump less so you can pump more" kind of transaction. Ryan (Serrano, OSE Water Master for the Lower Rio Grande) and his staff are great at working some of these issues out." An OWMAN plan provides a degree of flexibility for farmers in managing their water rights across different parcels of land.


Faubion reminded the audience that there is also a market for surface water and said the District is working on ideas to facilitate this process. If a farmer needs to access that it won't count against their allotment. "The Office of the State Engineer and all of his staff are working very closely with EBID to come up with a sensible, logical, non-punitive solution to this year's over diversions. And we're working together to craft solutions for different scenarios down the road."


He said the bottom line is that farmers need to use their surface water allotment. "It's actually worse for the system if they don't use it. You've got to get that surface water on the ground, it recharges the aquifer. It also causes the farmers to pump less groundwater so it's kind of a double benefit to the aquifer, increasing recharge and decreasing withdrawal from the aquifer." Farmers who use all their surface water benefit the health of the system and show good stewardship he said.


The OSE and EBID both discussed the lack of reporting of groundwater use. The reporting rate sat at only 37% until recently but has risen to 50% in the last few weeks. This creates great difficulty in characterizing the problem and developing solutions. King said, "If we're to come up with good solutions we need good data. We can't fly blind here so take home message number two is report, report, report. You're required to; it is good management to measure what you're doing. If you can't measure your water you're not managing it. Measure your water, report it to Ryan even if it does show that you go over; we'll figure it out."


Serrano's office actively works with farmers to gain voluntary compliance on reporting their water use. "If we don't have the information we can't come up with solutions," he said, "the only way we can gain that knowledge is by getting the information, reporting your meter readings, letting us know where your water is going, which lands you're irrigating. If we can figure all those things out then there's a good chance we can get you back into compliance and maintain where you're at, make sure you don't go over." He encouraged those with questions to come in and talk to them, "We're here to help and we want to help so please come in and report your readings. Use all of your surface water, that's a key component."


Rep. Bill Gomez asked about alternatives for farmers who over allocate their water. Faubion responded, "We're still working through some of those solutions. I think we'll have a better picture of what the options are when we have all of the meter readings in. if somebody comes in right now we can work with them to look at leasing some surface rights, work with them on an OWMAN." Serrano agreed and said over diversion problems can often be resolved by understanding a farmer's operation better. However, King reminded listeners of budgeting principle 101, "If we do have people who are just flat over using water then they need to live within their means."


Gary Esslinger, EBID Manager and Treasurer, reminded attendees, "EBID offers a well meter RT unit; once we put that into your well system, it's a onetime expense and then your meter reading goes automatically to the state engineer every quarter, we think this is beneficial to the farmer, helps him manage his water." The District is working with the state engineer on improving opportunities for farmers to acquire these well meter RT units.


King commented on the good working relationship EBID has with OSE, "We agree on a lot of principles, number one, use all your surface water, number 2, report your data, and number 3, we want to come up with solutions to this; they're not punishment for something that really is in many ways beyond the farmers' control." Farmers are strongly encouraged to talk to their neighbors and let them know that both OSE and EBID want to work together to develop reasonable solutions to over diversion problems during this "odd" year and out into the future.


"EBID and the Office of the State Engineer are working together to get this solved," Blaine emphasized.


Flood Awareness and Planning in the High Desert

EBID Report
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Stormwater entering from the watersheds has a great impact on the entire region here in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. Harnessing this additional supply of water can minimize flooding, recharge the aquifers and provide other irrigation and economic benefits. However, stormwater management must begin at the top of the watersheds to reduce the volume, settle out sedimentation and control the velocity of the water before it reaches populated areas along the river. EBID Manager Gary Esslinger says it is critical "to build sound science infrastructure to capture and salvage this precious resource before it becomes a public safety and welfare nightmare for the unsuspecting residents in the valley floor."


Historically, "The Rio Grande was essentially a stormwater stream, subject to great and sudden floods or becoming a dry stream bed because of severe drought," Esslinger notes, "The region's rainfall occurs principally in the form of intense "Cloud Bursts" during the monsoon season, which fill the dry ephemeral streams/arroyos with turbulent, sediment loaded stormwater for short durations. When those storms occur simultaneously in many parts of the region they cause destructive floods in other parts of the valley, as evident of the Hatch flooding in 2006."


The "feast or famine" nature of the river flow changed upon the completion of Elephant Butte and Caballo Dams 100 miles upstream in 1916 and 1933 respectively, enabling the capture and storage of snow melt run off from the southern Rockies. However, even today irrigated agricultural land, communities and cities along the river course are often inundated with flood debris and submerged roads and highways add enormous costs to the property damage.


Available funding has been inadequate and sporadic to take on the noble effort of maintaining these dams at a standard to protect the public safety and welfare. The City of Las Cruces, Dona Ana County, other public entities and farmers have tried to address this concern within their limits.


Hundreds of flood dams up and down the East and West mesas, public and private, exist today. EBID sponsors 27 of these flood structures in the Rincon and Mesilla Valleys because the stormwater outflow from these dams flows directly into our canals and laterals rather than directly to the river. Flooding can result further downstream from where the initial mishap occurred due to the fact that our canal system now carries flood water downstream to areas which otherwise may not have been susceptible to flooding. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the watersheds that remain are uncontrolled arroyos and gullies that directly impact the escarpments and valley floor. As Houston experienced, when additional rainfall falls on already saturated ground and full waterways, flooding is inevitable. Future flood flows in our own narrow valley are a very real possibility in the event of a major storm and have the potential to impact us catastrophically.


Esslinger says, "I have been accused of being a fear monger but this valley is in the cross hairs of a horrific flood event. It is time for serious objective planning that begins to focus and recognize the benefit of addressing water matters at the base of the mountains and upper watersheds rather than at the valley entrance. We must look at the entire watersheds, alluviums and an enormous area of connecting arroyos and gullies as part of the system to be managed and protected." Regional planning must not ignore the potential loss of property and economic devastation from flooding. If a 100 year storm event hits our local region, will we be prepared? It is not "if" it will happen, but "when." Esslinger cautions, "We can no longer afford to live in the land of mañana."


EBID End of Irrigation Season Report

Karen Ray for EBID
(Back to the top)

Elephant Butte Irrigation District is reaching the end of another successful irrigation season said James Narvaez, the District's Irrigation System Director. He confirmed that the last day for farmers to order water will be September 22 at 4:30 pm. Final water deliveries must be made by September 30 as the system will be out of water by that date. He cautioned, "If at all possible, do not wait till the 22nd to order your water. When we hit the 30th we're done. We expect the demand to be very high for the end of season water orders." Orders can be placed online at www.ebid-nm.org through the Farmer Services portal or by calling the Water Records Office at 575-524-8003.


Narvaez said the District hit its targeted efficiency rates, which has allowed them to continue the season till the end of September. "Late rains also impacted the demand," he noted, "This may have allowed some farmers to in effect receive an extra irrigation from stormwater without having to order water." This year the canals reached capacity during the month of June as the District saw its highest demand. Historically, the highest demand month has been July because of the heat but this year July's late rains and sporadic storms through August kept the demand lower. "With the later rainfalls we never really got up to capacity again because of the lowered demand," he said.


Examining his records he said, "September 30th finish date will make the latest we've had in about 15 years. Thanks of course to the efforts of the farmers who are watering more efficiently and communication and coordination with ditch riders that helped improve the overall delivery."


The final flat rate irrigation took place over Labor Day weekend, September 2 and 3rd. That brought the District to a total of four flat rate irrigations for the season, the most in several years. Narvaez says, "Flat rate irrigations seemed to improve this year thanks to the efforts of the flat raters who worked together to keep their ditches clean and accomplish their irrigations efficiently." Going into next season he said, "We'd encourage flat raters to continue to work towards developing community ditch associations in order for EBID to better serve their needs. They can contact Orlando Tirre at the Operations Office at 575-526-6671, ext. 435 for more information about this simple process."


Narvaez commented, "Although we had 24 inches of water, it was still a late allocation. This puts us in a better position for the beginning of the 2018 irrigation season. If forecasts hold and demand dictates we could start up sooner next year."


Projected estimated totals for the season are as follows:
Over 300,000 cumulative acres irrigated
Average monthly acres irrigated approximately 65,000
About 135,000 acre feet delivered for crop consumption
Average monthly diversion about 30,000 acre feet


Immediately after the close of the irrigation season, EBID's maintenance season begins. District staff and employees shift gears and begin to use the dry months to improve District facilities and delivery efficiencies, making the entire system work better and smarter every year.


Strong, Safe, Secure: EBID's Role in Dam Maintenance and Security

Karen Ray for EBID
(Back to the top)

Recent coverage of Hurricane Harvey has made us all vividly aware of the tremendous, often unexpected force of nature. Just as citizens in flood prone areas have learned to prepare, so community officials and residents of our high desert region realize the importance of preparing for our own potential flood events.


Private, city, county and state entities across the region regularly meet to plan and practice what they will do in the event of an emergency to reduce hazards to people and property. They discuss and practice a variety of action plans should a 100 or a 500 year storm event occur, as well as dam breaches or a simple overabundance of water in the wrong place at the wrong time. From Hatch and Rincon through the Mesilla Valley, all the way down the Elephant Butte Irrigation District to El Paso, the area is no stranger to flooding.


EBID's stormwater capture program is only one part of the solution. The District is also heavily involved in collaborative work with other organizations to monitor the condition and safety of area dams constructed 50 to 60 years ago to protect agricultural land. Today, communities have grown up below these structures, what experts call "hazard creep," creating increased hazard to both residents and the entities charged with operating and maintaining the structures. People live with a false sense of security and aren't as aware as they should be of the inherent risk as those dams continue to age. Maintenance is critical and flood control entities and dam sponsors must expend money and resources to ensure it gets done.


The dams require annual inspections and this is conducted jointly by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the dam sponsors, such as EBID. The group recommends appropriate maintenance measures. This includes removing silt buildup behind the dams to allow for full collection capacity as well as controlling woody vegetation growth on the dam. Some types of plants are helpful, like grasses whose root systems help hold the soil in place. Large shrubs and trees, however, have deep root systems that can track water and damage the integrity of the dam. These need to be controlled and removed. Other ongoing concerns are pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and other burrowing animals that can damage the dam in the process of digging out their next apartment. They have even been known to cause irrigation canal wall failures because of extensive burrowing. They may look cute but they are immensely destructive, do not feed them!


EBID's Maintenance Director Leo Barrett is leading a shift back to a renewed emphasis on the critical maintenance of these flood control dams across the District. His equipment operators work not only on brush removal each year but also large scale silt removal. "If you've got a dam that's three fourths full of silt," he says, "you're not going to catch and release as much water as you would if you get it empty." The twin goals of public safety and stormwater capture are best served when a dam is able to capture as much storm water as possible then release it in a controlled manner.


Patrick Lopez, EBID's Hydrology and IT Director, oversees the District's Remote Telemetry Unit (RTU) System, which monitors and provides all real-time water data. He has worked with Zack Libbin, EBID's District Engineer (PE), to develop remote telemetry sites that will monitor rising dam water and measure outflows from the dam outlet and emergency spillway. Site design and planning was a collaborative effort involving multiple personnel from both the Hydrology and Engineering departments, with all protective pedestal casings built by the District's Fabrication Department. The District is currently in the process of installing RTU monitoring on 28 flood control dams. Each flood control dam will have extensive alarm capabilities to alert EBID personnel of accumulating storm run-off and provide potential early flood warning for public safety. The dams are designed to drain and release water slowly over a period of days. EBID's dams are required to drain within 96 hours.


EBID sponsors or co-sponsors 27 dams along the east and west mesas of the Rincon and Mesilla Valleys and is the labor force behind most of the dam maintenance for other entities like the Dona Ana County Flood Commission, who are also responsible for numerous dams. The Flood Commission requests EBID perform maintenance pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and then pays EBID's equipment and labor costs to implement it.


"High Hazard" dams, classified as such based on their size and potential risk of breach, have strict regulations administered by the Office of the State Engineer Dam Safety Bureau. All of these High Hazard dams require an emergency action plan (EAP), which is lacking for most rural dams in New Mexico. EBID and its cosponsors have EAPs in place for Tortugas Site 1, Rodey Arroyo, North Salem Arroyo, Green Canyon, and Berrenda Dams. EBID is pursuing the remainder of these critical planning documents and is striving to have them all in place. District Engineer Zach Libbin and GIS Analyst Dennis McCarville are developing the required hydrology and hydraulic analysis which lead to flood inundation maps. In coordination with the Office of Emergency Management, dam breach inundation maps in turn lead to evacuation maps. This is key information should a storm occur which overtops the dam, or any other emergency related to the dam develop.


EBID takes storms and dam safety seriously, whether it's capturing storm water or working with others toward improving dam safety.


State Engineer and Elephant Butte Irrigation District Coordinate to Offer Help to Farmers Facing Irrigation Issues

Santa Fe, New Mexico
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For more information, contact:
Gary Esslinger, EBID Treasurer-Manager, gesslinger@ebid-nm.org, (575) 639-4377
Robert Faubion, EBID President, (575) 649-5598
Dr. Phil King, EBID Engineering Consultant, (575) 571-8166
Melissa Dosher-Smith, OSE Public Information Officer melissa.dosher@state.nm.us, (505) 469-5698


The irrigation season is well underway in the Hatch, Rincon and Mesilla valleys in south central New Mexico, but some farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) have already exceeded their allowable groundwater limits and others could soon be facing the same problem.


Farmers in the EBID with combined surface water and groundwater rights are allowed 4.5 acre-feet per acre total water from both sources, and in some cases can divert up to a total of 5.5 acre-feet per acre. The drought of the past six years was brutal, resulting in an average surface water allotment of only eight inches for EBID farmers (a full supply is 36 inches).


Because of the persistent drought that ended the past year, the 2017 season started out with very little water in storage at Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs. The shortage of water in storage affected the initial surface water allotment to EBID farmers and delayed the start of the surface water irrigation season.


An above-average snowpack produced a welcome break in the dismal spring runoffs of previous years. As a result, the EBID was able to adjust the surface water allotment up to two acre-feet per acre in June. Because of the late arrival of a decent supply of water into Elephant Butte Reservoir, farmers began irrigation in late February with groundwater. Surface water deliveries did not begin in the EBID's Mesilla Valley until late May. By that time, several farmers had been compelled to irrigate with groundwater such that the June allotment of two acre-feet per acre put them over their seasonal limit.


The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) and the EBID recognized this problem based on the surface water allotment and groundwater reporting data provided by some farmers, and are working collaboratively to develop solutions. The OSE and the EBID will co-host an open house where affected farmers and water resource experts from the two organizations will have the opportunity to discuss this unique water year and options for those water users facing over-diversion situations.


"We've worked together with farmers for decades to find creative solutions for water issues," said State Engineer Tom Blaine. "We look forward to continuing our working relationship with farmers and the EBID to solve this current problem. We are thankful to have the benefits of the increased runoff, even with the problems it may bring."


Robert Faubion, President of EBID's Board of Directors, reinforced this approach. "This water year has been a welcome break from the stiff drought of the past several years, but the late timing of the available surface water will put some farmers in a tough place," he said. "The State Engineer and the EBID don't want farmers punished for that. This late water supply is a blessing and we will treat it as such. My two bits of advice to farmers who are affected are to use all your surface water, it is the best thing for the health of our aquifer system. I also recommend they report their pumping to the OSE. We are trying to strategize with a very limited reporting rate. It is hard for us to address what we can't see."


The OSE and the EBID's open house will be held on Thursday, September 7th from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at Gerald Thomas Hall on the NMSU Campus, Room 194 (see map below). Parking will be available.


Spotlight on Stormwater

Karen Ray for EBID
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High humidity, weeds galore, downed trees and flooding around our high desert region remind us that once again the annual monsoon season is here. Elephant Butte Irrigation District, along with many other entities, government and private, is hard at work dealing with all the extra water. One of the ways they're doing this is through their Stormwater Capture Program.


Surging stormwater inflows can be harnessed and put to work similar to the concept of harvesting solar energy. In this case, the stormwater can be used for irrigating farmers' crops, reducing the need to release as much water from the reservoir and helping to recharge a depleted aquifer during the ongoing drought.


EBID Manager Gary Esslinger explains, "The problem with the monsoon season is you never know where it's going to hit so there could be an event in Hatch where everything is dry down here and it's just running full bore up in the Hatch area. We try to accommodate stormwater that's coming down from Hatch and then try to divert it into the Leasburg or Mesilla Dams." The district has worked to become more sophisticated with monitoring and metering the stormwater using state of the art instrumentation and developing management and reuse strategies.


The District must deal with what's in the river first and then determine if there is room to even put it in the canal system. Esslinger says, "The canal system is usually at capacity for irrigation purposes during July in the monsoon season; especially in a year like this year when we have a two foot allotment. When we only have an eight inch allotment it's easier to receive that water into our system." To avoid flushing "good Caballo water" into the drains the district at times must evacuate that water from the system, sending it into the river and picking it up again in Leasburg and Mesilla, while bringing in stormwater at Hatch.


"Hatch is unique too because there's eight or nine flood control dams there where the outflow channel goes directly into our lateral system, not directly into the river directly," he explains, "The river is so far away from the retention dams that our network of canals and laterals is utilized to get the water to the river." Esslinger says, "I've experienced years where we've watered maybe a month in Hatch with water coming off of these flood control dams and not had to depend on releasing from Caballo or Percha to deliver this water." He recalls that back in 2006, the year of the Hatch flood, Broad Canyon Dam drained for almost two months into the river, where it was redirected at Leasburg Dam.


Stormwater capture is a "Cat and mouse game," Esslinger notes, "You have to almost look at every event, what benefits can you derive from it?" Patrick Lopez, EBID's Hydrology Director, works with a team of District engineers and staff to increase monitoring across the district. They have placed RTU (Remote Telemetry Unit) sensors on arroyos, drains and dams in addition to the hundreds of miles of the conveyance system, working to develop a thorough information "net" to monitor potential stormwater. Their goal is to increase the numbers of sensors out in the watersheds to help prepare and react to incoming storm flow. Esslinger says they're also in the process of increasing infrastructure to put rain gauges and flood control gates in the drains to help direct this sporadic stormwater resource.


In a recent letter to EBID employees, Esslinger said, "For the farmers to survive and for the food to continue to be produced here in Dona Ana County, a stable water supply is a must. It is with the innovative spirit of all of us working together that I believe we can continue to sustain our agricultural industry and our job feeding our Nation." The District is beginning to see that directing captured stormwater into targeted areas of the depleted groundwater aquifer is one way to help meet that goal.


Weed Control 101

Karen Ray for EBID
(Back to the top)

Elephant Butte Irrigation District's ongoing battle against weeds stretches across hundreds of miles of canals and laterals. Piping of some irrigation canals results not only in water savings but savings of energy, time and herbicide to spray the weeds off open ditches. This translates economically and environmentally to a healthier bottom line. However, due to piping cost and the sheer size of the District, they must rely primarily on traditional spraying.


The District's Maintenance Director, Leo Barrett says, "Staying on top of these weeds is a big part of what we do during the maintenance season. The job requires a great amount of skill, eye - hand coordination and understanding what they're mowing, because they've got all kinds of obstacles in their way." These obstacles include gates, turnouts and concrete headers, all of which do not respond well to being impacted by a piece of heavy equipment. The District counts on well-trained equipment operators to handle this job throughout the year.


Complications include an increase in spray-resistant weeds across the country and the District is no exception. Staying on top of the issue is an ongoing challenge. Another aspect of weed control is managing "drift." Experts at www.farmmanagement.pro explain, "As spray drift occurs, a portion of the spray mix does not reach the target site, so the herbicide dose applied will be less than intended, often leading to poor or erratic control, and a waste of herbicide, time, and money."


Trained District operators use extreme caution to avoid this, ensuring that application rates are not harmful to animals or pedestrians who walk along the canal banks. Variables that go in to making the decision on how and when to spray for weeds are wind speed and direction, temperatures and chance of rain.


EBID practices careful and efficient use of herbicides, managing drift by controlling flow rate in spray applications and by careful direction of spray nozzles as well as monitoring of wind and weather conditions.


Barrett explains that the District uses an additive to minimize the drift. This changes the pH level of the water the herbicide is mixed with so the chemical bonds to the weeds. Herbicides used are also non-volatizing, staying on the weeds, not in the air. This helps the District accomplish cost effective weed control while protecting people, pets and desired plants; everything but the weed.


State of the Aquifer: Update with Groundwater Hydrologist Erek Fuchs

EBID Report
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The valley is beginning to green up, spring winds remind us the season is changing and farmers are managing early crops, irrigated with groundwater before the surface water season begins.


Groundwater Hydrologist Erek Fuchs with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District recently discussed groundwater trends with the EBID Board of Directors in a report on the Rincon/Hatch and Mesilla Valley aquifers. Working closely with EBID's Technology Director, Patrick Lopez, and a team of other specialists and engineers at the District, he compiled and analyzed data from monitoring wells throughout the region. He explains that he uses Geospatial modeling based on groundwater table elevation measurements with precision instruments to calculate where and to what extent changes in shallow aquifer storage within the EBID are occurring on an annual basis."


His assessment of 2016 groundwater trends is encouraging. He notes that his work focuses on the annual end of year net change in the shallow alluvium in recent years and said "variation within the year, particularly during the active irrigation season is important to keep an eye on, but it is the comparison of year end to year end response of the aquifer in December of each year, when irrigation pumping has largely ceased and the water table reaches a new relative equilibrium, that we then can see what the changes in shallow aquifer storage have been." He points out, "Pumping effects at depths below the shallow alluvium where aquifer storage properties are different may not be realized at the water table for a number of years, but will tend to persist much longer."


Hatch/ Rincon Valley


As residents know, there isn't much of an aquifer in this area. Fuchs says, "The aquifer there is really little more than an extension of the river bed itself, expanding spatially into the adjacent floodplain to a limited extent, but is otherwise a relatively narrow and very shallow system comprised almost exclusively of alluvium sediments. Very different, especially in terms of depth, than what we have down here in the Mesilla. They've only got about 55 feet on average of saturated thickness to work with."


Fuchs examined data from EBID's 13 monitoring sites in the Hatch/Rincon Valley as well as from several USGS sites, giving a good overview of the system. In consultation with EBID's Operations Director, James Narvaez, they found that in 2016 there were almost 16,000 acres irrigated in this area, a small reduction from the typical 17,000 acres in active cultivation in the Hatch/Rincon Valley. The average groundwater table elevation decline over the last seven years is presently just over two feet. This may not seem like much, but is very important in a system that doesn't have much aquifer thickness to spare to begin with. Fuchs says this is nevertheless an improvement compared to just a couple of years ago, showing that the system is currently gaining. The cumulative net storage loss since 2010 is now at about 12,500 acre-feet. Modest gains in storage began in 2014 and persisted through this last year. "That's a very good thing because they needed to see some relief up there," he says, "In 2013, with the very scant surface water allotment of only 3.5 acre-inches per acre we had then, most of the growers up in the Rincon Valley hit a wall of sorts. Given the shallow, narrow system that they have to work with and limited groundwater in storage under to begin with, that is understandable."


There were gains throughout the system in 2016, and EBID's GIS Analyst, Dennis McCarville, worked with Fuchs in creating maps to illustrate where and to what extent the changes in shallow aquifer storage have occurred over the last several years. Fuchs says the farming community is adapting to the harsh realities of drought conditions and noted, "We're seeing some stabilization [in groundwater elevations] in the Rincon, which is encouraging. I think a big part of the reason for this is a change in cropping patterns. There has been adjustment from double or triple crops to single crops, staying with the mainstays mostly of chile, onions, and some cotton."


He also credits captured stormwater with contributing to gains in storage, pointing out that although a deficit situation remains, particularly between Garfield and Salem, that same area saw some of the greatest gains in 2016. "That's encouraging," he says, "It's apparent that the farming community up there is aware of where their problems are and they're addressing those by changing cropping patterns and making adjustments to the distribution of pumping."


Salts remain an issue in the Rincon Valley, and have become somewhat worse in recent years. Impeded drainage due to lack of channel maintenance in the Rio Grande is a major factor in salt accumulation. Zach Libbin, EBID's Engineer, worked with Fuchs in coordination with USGS to facilitate re-drilling of a shallow monitoring site in that area so it could be instrumented with water quality sensors. They want to keep a close eye on salt accumulation in the area. "Patrick Lopez (EBID Technology Director) is expanding our program in the Rincon and the Mesilla Valleys," says Fuchs, "taking measurements of specific conductance to estimate TDS (total dissolved solids) over all of our monitoring sites. That's going to be excellent data. We'll have the most comprehensive data set on TDS in the Lower Rio Grande."


The Hatch/Rincon Valley is quick to lose groundwater from storage in response to pumping stress, acknowledges Fuchs, "But it's quick to gain as well. The losses are felt greater and more immediately because there simply isn't much of a groundwater buffer to work with. The annual rate of loss remains greater than the rate of gain, but I want to stress that things are gaining up there." Farmer and EBID board member Jerry Franzoy observes that the relative health of the aquifer in the Hatch Valley has improved and says that monitoring of groundwater levels throughout the District has been valuable to the farmers. Local precipitation during the winter also helped some farmers hold off on pumping groundwater to irrigate their spring onions he said.


Mesilla


Fuchs describes the aquifer in the Mesilla Valley as "deep and robust" and says EBID has it instrumented with monitoring sites and sensors pretty well, particularly in the shallow alluvium. Cultivation numbers in 2016 showed about 52,000 acres in the Mesilla that were irrigated through EBID, down about 11,000 acres from the average. Fuchs says the reduction in irrigated acreage reflects apparent fallowing of row crops, and seasonal stacking or temporary transfers of EBID surface water from fallowed land to other acreage in cultivation, such as permanent pecan orchards. This helps replace some amount of groundwater pumping that would otherwise occur, particularly in pecan production.


The take home message from the groundwater data in the District's Central area is that the cumulative average net change in year-end shallow groundwater elevations now sits at -5.9 feet, an improvement over the cumulative average seven foot decline observed just a couple of years ago. Of course, water table declines during the irrigation season in any given year while wells are actually running is much greater. Cumulative net loss from shallow storage from 2010 through 2016 in the Mesilla is calculated to be about 137,000 acre-feet. Just a couple of years ago, the cumulative loss was well over 160,000 acre-feet. "Things are improving," Fuchs says, "We're gaining across the board in the Mesilla as well." Gains began to be seen in 2015 with 2016 showing substantial gains. "I'm encouraged, and I think this is a testament to the proactivity and organization of farming interests in the area where we've otherwise seen some of the greatest losses in recent years," he says, "The farming community in the Mesilla Valley, like the Rincon Valley, is mindful of where their problems are and are going to considerable effort and expense to try and address them. I'm encouraged by that and proud of our farmer's commitment to agronomic adaption to ongoing drought."


The aquifer in the Mesilla is also quick to lose, but not quite as quick to gain as the Rincon, Fuchs notes, "But you have a significant groundwater buffer to work with. I want to draw attention to the fact that it is presently gaining. That is very encouraging."


Fuchs asserts. "The Operating Agreement is working; downstream EPCWID No.1 is being kept whole. EBID farmers have clearly suffered the hardships of drought, but the more recent gains in the aquifer are measurable and unmistakable. We're successfully enduring what I would characterize as the worst drought in the history of the Rio Grande Project." However, noting the diminished capacity of Elephant Butte Reservoir, he warns that drought conditions in the region are far from over. It could be some time before full or even close to full surface water allotments can be expected. "We're not out of the woods yet."


Lobbying for increased Remote Telemetry Unit (RTU) metering of groundwater pumping, Fuchs says, "We need to explore the potential for more growers to come forward and participate in EBID's telemetry program." The program aids farmers and can also provide critical information and benefit to the Office of the State Engineer. Data collected by Lopez, developer of the District's RTU system, is accurate, reliable and, stresses Fuchs, it is real time. Monitoring units have been upgraded, says Lopez, to better suit harsh environmental conditions. "Once the installation occurs," Fuchs says, "EBID takes over the maintenance and management of the telemetry units." He hopes to see some economic incentives made available to help farmers increase their participation in EBID's RTU metering program.


EBID Manager Gary Esslinger expressed interest in working with the State Engineer and the legislature to expand this RTU metering program as it would benefit everyone. He noted that in the past the state had programs in place to provide low interest rate loans to farmers to implement something like this, but those have fallen by the wayside. He says, "If every one of these [wells] had real time data on it, it would be so easy to keep track of groundwater pumping for accounting and other purposes."


In summary, although the magnitude of change differs between the Rincon and the Mesilla Valleys because they are different systems with different demands, the trend of increases in shallow aquifer storage over the last couple of years in response to gradual increases in the EBID surface water allotment is basically the same, Fuchs says. It may be a while before we're seeing full allotment years, he acknowledges, but if the District were to receive four consecutive years of full surface water allotments beginning this year, although unlikely, he estimates that full recovery of the shallow aquifer to end of 2009 conditions might be expected. The annual surface water allotment and the farming community's adaptation to the harsh realities of drought both factor into careful stewardship of limited water resources.


National Ag Day: Thank a Farmer

by Karen Ray
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National Ag Day is March 21st, so thank a farmer for food to eat and clothes to wear. And thank the hard working team at Elephant Butte Irrigation District for helping to ensure folks get the irrigation water necessary to grow those crops. In fact, Elephant Butte Irrigation District manager Gary Esslinger has a bumper sticker that reads "No Farm, No Food."


According to www.agday.org this year's theme is "Agriculture: Food for Life" and 2017 marks the 44th anniversary. Events are planned in communities across the country to honor the men and women who make agricultural production possible and to tell the story of American agriculture.


National Ag Day is organized by the Agriculture Council of America, nonprofit organization, dedicated to increasing the public's awareness of agriculture's role in modern society. The National Ag Day program encourages every American to:


  • Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
  • Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
  • Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
  • Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.


Sierra County will celebrate Ag day with a "Down on the Farm" event this Friday, March 17 starting at 9:00 a.m. at Desert Springs Produce, Gillis Farms, Arrey, NM. The event is dedicated to the children of the community. Their goal is to demonstrate the various aspects of the agriculture industry, delighting the kids and "showing them where their food, clothing and shelter comes from. We want to plant a seed of encouragement, water it with knowledge, and shed light on the many diverse areas of agriculture. We realize the importance of teaching the younger generation." EBID will be featuring their custom irrigation display trailer at the event.


Chuy Morales, an engineer technician with EBID likes to ask school kids, "Who benefits from agriculture? Where do you think (food) comes from?" And the question with a universal answer, "Have you guys ever eaten?" He then leads them through the process of thinking about where all the ingredients for their favorite foods comes from; the grapes and apples in their lunch, the corn and alfalfa to raise beef or allow dairy cows to produce the cheese on their tacos, the chile that goes in their mama's best salsa recipe. He leaves them with, "If you guys have ever eaten anything, thank a farmer. Thank someone that's been out there in the fields taking care of and working there on the farm."


Dr. Phil King, engineering and hydrology consultant for EBID, is cautiously optimistic about the water supply forecast for the 2017 irrigation season. He says river flows are running at average levels, delivering about 1700 acre feet per day into the system. However, current snowpack is about 146% SWE and Wolf Creek Summit still has another two months to go before it hits its typical peak snow level. King informed the board that there are 258,000 acre feet of releasable water available in storage to allocate for 2017 at this point. This translates to an estimated 7.5 inch allotment. The district's board of directors will meet on 3/24 to set the water allotment for this year.


EBID irrigated 73,303 acres with surface water across the district in 2016. Farmers raised cotton, forage, pecans, chile and a variety of vegetables, grains and fruit, providing critical resources and positive impact on southern New Mexico's economy and beyond as those Ag products were shipped around the world.


The Road Less Traveled: EBID and the Roads Act

EBID Staff Report
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Municipalities and counties are continually improving and often widening roads. At times this means that they want to use irrigation district canal banks for public roads. This would subject irrigation districts to liability that they are currently not subject to under Section 41-4-11 of the Tort Claims Act. Elephant Butte Irrigation District operates, maintains, and owns the irrigation distribution system of the Rio Grande Project, including the canals, laterals, drains, wasteways, canal/drain banks, and structures. These facilities are used only by the District to conduct their business and are not open for public use without a special use permit or other written agreement. However, in some areas, district property provides a potentially decent location for public road for access to private property.


EBID has a Right of Use Policy and an agreement with the City of Las Cruces and Dona Ana County, and NMDOT which addresses, lists and permits those roads that cross EBID facilities. However, several DAC roads paralleling EBID facilities, on EBID property or Right of Ways, have been improved without EBID's permission across the county. Several other roads exist without EBID's permission and without adequate improvements. All roads paralleling EBID facilities create an unresolved liability issue for both DAC and EBID.


The proposed amendment, called the Roads Act (HB 164 and SB 178), would allow irrigation districts to permit the use of their canal bank property for use as public roads built and maintained by other public entities, without being subjected to additional liability.


"It was the Kit Carson Road near Rincon that brought this issue to a head," explains Lee Peters, legal counsel for EBID, "The County built a narrow road in between an EBID drain and EBID canal that carries large trucks, school buses, etc." This road is an example of an unpermitted road that's improvements have hit a standstill due to the need for a permit from EBID that properly addresses liability. Peters said, "This legislation would solve both this problem and others like it. EBID could issue the permit to expand the road, provided the County enters into an agreement with them that meets the legal requirements. There are more than 80 existing County roads on EBID property that need to come into compliance with EBID permitting processes, once this law goes into effect. There are other roads that the County, as well as the State and the City of Las Cruces, want to put in that would then be allowable with this amendment.


In 2007 the Legislature passed into law language allowing for irrigation district canal banks to be used for recreational trails without incurring liability. This "Trails Act" was a huge success because it has allowed for trails to be built around the city and created the opportunity for many future recreational trail opportunities. Similar language in the current proposed amendment would serve the same purpose and allow use of district land as roads.


Similar versions of this bill came very close to fruition in 2014 and 2015. The Attorney General, along with other state officials, revised that language in 2014, resulting in a House Agriculture Committee Substitute for HB 165 and Senate Conservation Committee Substitute for SB100. Peters explained, "The bills received 'do pass' recommendations from several committees and the House bill passed the House of Representatives, but both bills died on adjournment."


Further work in 2015 saw the bills through various committees but dying in the Senate Judiciary. 2016 was strictly a financial session, so no progress was made on this issue. To date, according to EBID manager Gary Esslinger, "Four bills matching the current HB164 have gone through seven committees and twice through the House unanimously." Previous revisions were made to the bill and it now meets the requirements of the Attorney General. Irrigation and conservancy districts have extensive and unique property holdings that other entities do not possess. The Legislature has the right to carve out exceptions to waivers of immunity to fit the circumstances of these special governmental units.


Currently, during the 2017 Legislative Session, the bill has successfully gone through two House committees and one Senate committee. Esslinger has traveled to Santa Fe several times this session and attended the third reading on the House Floor, showing that this bill is clearly important to EBID. As of Monday, 2/27 SB 178 received a do pass without objection from the Senate Judiciary as amended. Peters says, SB 178 now goes to the Senate floor and HB 164 is awaiting committee hearings in the Senate. He explained that if either bill makes it through both the House and the Senate, it will then go to the Governor for her approval and to become law.


EBID seeks to cooperatively resolve the problematic situations caused by these unpermitted roads and remedy those dangerous areas that do not allow adequate space for the district to perform maintenance. Passage of the Roads Act will help begin this process.



Community Agencies Conduct Dam Breach/Flooding Table Top Exercise

by Karen Ray for EBID
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Many of us drive by dams such as Tortugas #1 east of NMSU without giving them a second thought. It is reassuring to know that area agencies meet regularly to proactively address public safety, practicing how best to protect the people and property within their jurisdiction in the event of an emergency.


The Dona Ana County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in partnership with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) recently held a "table top" exercise to prepare for the unlikely event of a dam breach or overtop. The exercise centered around the Tortugas #1 Dam, which EBID is responsible for operating and maintaining.


In addition to its responsibilities to deliver irrigation water, EBID also sponsors five dams: Picacho North, Picacho South, Lucero, Dona Ana North, and Tortugas #1, and co-sponsors 21 more, along with the Caballo Soil and Water Conservation District, Dona Ana Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Dona Ana County Flood Commission.


Community agencies identified as having a critical role in the event of a dam emergency were invited. Agencies including the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer Dam Safety Bureau, New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Dona Ana County Office of Emergency Management, Dona Ana County Flood Commission, City of Las Cruces, New Mexico State University, and many others participated in the exercising and review of the Emergency Action Plan for Tortugas 1 Dam.


The large group met at the new Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority (MVRDA) facility in Las Cruces. Training Officer Lt. Ron Schulmeister with the Las Cruces City Fire Department walked workshop participants through several scenarios based on various potential breach threats to the dam located near the New Mexico State University Golf Course and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum.


One of the scenarios read: "At 9 a.m. Wednesday, August 23, 2017, an EBID employee checking on the status of the dam observes water flowing over the auxiliary spillway. A sizable quantity of water is flowing downstream of the dam. The downstream arroyo is rapidly eroding."


Different entities weighed in on what actions the Emergency Action Plan called for and what procedures they would expect to follow in the given scenarios, including who they would contact and when. They discussed how the situation would be monitored to determine if further action needed to be taken. Public safety was the primary focus as they utilized a series of flood inundation maps that are part of the Emergency Action Plan prepared by EBID.


As the groups were provided new scenarios, they discussed among themselves, arriving at a plan of action. The operation of the dam remains the responsibility of EBID but evacuation of the public is the responsibility of other entities and emergency responders who are notified by EBID that a situation is a non-failure emergency, a potential failure emergency, or an imminent failure emergency. Then Schulmeister led them through the process of sharing their input with the other entities, everyone working together to clarify the process, practicing in the event of the real thing. The Emergency Action Plan laid out directions for most steps of the response to the scenario but "What if?" questions were raised also and solutions put forth to possible unexpected situations like road washouts or equipment failures.


In the event of a flooding concern some agencies would provide evaluation and notification, others would activate appropriate evacuations, each taking flexible action as needed to deal with that particular situation's threat level. EBID Manager Gary Esslinger discussed the communication process the district would follow, starting with consulting with District Engineer Zack Libbin to evaluate the situation. The steps followed repeated a process of emergency evaluation, communication, and expected actions.


The group noted that an Emergency Operation Center could be activated to begin coordinating response and related coordinated action. John Gwynne, Engineer Supervisor at Dona Ana County Flood Commission, brought up that access to the area around a dam structure is always a concern and must be addressed. Libbin commented that evacuation maps have been prepared for the different scenarios and would be appropriately utilized. MRVDA said that their agency is able to put out 38,000 phone calls in 12 minutes to notify people if necessary.


The group repeated the process again with a further developing situation, more advanced flooding threats with water close to top of the dam, the spillway eroding, and seepage through the dam developing. Agencies practiced what they would do in the event of this unlikely but critical emergency, not only following their developed action plans but brainstorming how to make the process even more efficient and effective.


As noted in a recent EBID article regarding the South Central New Mexico Stormwater Management Coalition (SCNMSMC) and dam safety, "It is critical that sponsors put forth the money and effort necessary to maintain the dam structures but additional funding is needed. After fifty plus years of protecting primarily farmland, today dams also protect communities, greatly complicating the safety factor." It is in light of this concern for public safety the OEM and EBID conducted the training exercise. The scout motto of "Be Prepared" is as relevant today as it ever was.




Rio Grande wave front north of Hatch, NM at 8:00 pm May 25th, 2014. Photographed by Zack Libbin.
This photo and images on the main page were enhanced by Darrol Shillingburg.
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