There is a collective anxiety about the future of farming in the Rio Grande Valley. There are no easy answers to the conflict between economic, social, and environmental stability.

Flood irrigation during the hottest part of the day near Radium Springs.

The total land area irrigated by Elephant Butte is 178,000 AC, split 57 percent to New Mexico and 43 percent to Texas, with 60,000 AFY of water delivered to Mexico, regardless of irrigated acreage. The full Rio Grande Project delivery at Elephant Butte is 790,000 AF of water, with reductions done on a pro-rate basis.

The Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) distributes the 57 percent of the Rio Grande Project water to 90,000 acres throughout both Sierra and Doña Ana counties. By taking over responsibility for water delivery in southern New Mexico, EBID is able to deliver water precisely where and when it is needed. EBID owns, operates, and maintains the canals, laterals, drains, wasteways, rights-of-way, structures, and other district-owned properties throughout the Rio Grande Project. Annually, EBID, El Paso County, and the Bureau of Reclamation decide how much water is available for the year. EBID then announces the amount each water-righted acre can receive at the beginning of that irrigation season.

The Rio Grande Project of 1905 operates under the law of prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right.” This law separates the water from the land, meaning those who lay claim to the water first may move it wherever they like, without consideration of the riparian system or ownership of the riverbank land. Water rights can be bought and sold separately from land. A beneficial use, defined by the state, is the key to acquiring a water right in perpetuity. Prior appropriation usually means that in drought years, only the most senior right-holders will receive water. EBID, as a collective, has senior rights.

In this part of the country, the Rio Grande is not a river, it is a delivery ditch.

In this image, the dashed white line represents the water level in mid-June 2020, while the pink line shows the water level as of the end of July 2020. Cars and people can clearly be seen inhabiting this liminal space that varies daily throughout the year. The sandy bottom of the reservoir remains without plant growth.

Doña Ana and Sierra counties contain the majority of the Rio Grande Project. Their economies depend on water deliveries to grow the world-famous Hatch chile, pecans, and many other row crops. Although the Bureau of Land Management is the major landholder in both counties, private farms are abundant. Farm size can vary from one acre to many thousands. In Sierra County, average farm size is almost 4,000 acres, while Doña Ana County farms are much smaller, averaging only 270. In both counties, over 90 percent of the farms are family-owned and operated. The crops from these farms are valued at over $200 million per year. But emergency conservation payments in Sierra County totaled $349,749 from 1995 to 2019; in Doña Ana County, they were $202,927. Additional monies have been made available to farmers through the USDA’s Direct Assistance Program in response to the coronavirus.

Sierra County’s median age is 56, with only 2.9 people per square mile. Both Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs are within the county, so tourism is a huge part of the economy. The Elephant Butte reservoir does not have a mandate to be recreational like other reservoirs, but people take this use very seriously, getting frustrated with the federal government when the lake is too low for boats. The towns of Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte are both popular for retirees as well. In Sierra County, Elephant Butte Reservoir, the Spaceport, and the many developed hot springs are primary economic drivers.

Doña Ana County’s median age is 33, with 55 people per square mile. The city of Las Cruces is located here, as is the New Mexico State University. It is the fastest-growing county in New Mexico. Fourteen percent of the state’s agricultural sales come from this county, which is number one in the state for sales of vegetables, fruit, nuts, and berries.

A typical farm road. Often, it is impossible to access the river from these roads. They follow ditches and tend to end abruptly at property lines.

Both counties have a high poverty level; up to 35 percent of the residents in Doña Ana live at the poverty level. The county was chosen in March 2015 to be one of eight Communities of Opportunity in the country. Growing Food Connections is a nonprofit that has been working with the county government to address food insecurity, immigration issues, transportation, economic depression, and access to surface and groundwater. While agriculture uses surface and groundwater, residential water is solely sourced from wells. This pitches farms against cities and farmland versus development because of the drawdown on the aquifer.

As water is less available, farming becomes more expensive and crop production diminishes. Hatch chile production has been declining since the 1990s. Other reasons for this decline include the difficulty of harvesting the chile and the lack of available workers due to immigration crackdowns. Migrant farmers are having great difficulty finding safe work and shelter. ICE stops have been permanently built on I-25 as well as smaller roads close to the river.


This article is part of “Water Scarcity: Elephant Butte Reservoir,” written solely by Kathleen Kambic, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. All images are her work alone, unless noted otherwise in the text.

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The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.