Past and Present-Day Efforts

Efforts by managing agencies and localities to respond to climate shifts and drought are ongoing, though the most effective solution would be to reduce water consumption. However, that would further impact the farmers and overall economy within the region. If well-building was the first solution to reductions in the water delivery from the Rio Grande, what can compensate for those wells? It is a difficult question that the region struggles to answer. The disconnection of the surface water of the Rio Grande and the groundwater of the Rio Grande Basin will only be further exacerbated in the future as temperatures climb and rainfall counts diminish.

In the past, larger-scale interventions were attempted. Caballo Reservoir was built to contain the water used in power production at Elephant Butte to support farmers downstream. This actually works quite well, but both reservoirs are affected by high evaporation rates.

Strategic delivery reductions across the board have helped a variety of farmers to maintain some crops while also fallowing fields. As the county governments and other initiatives work to help support the fragile local economies in these areas, grassroots efforts like farmers markets and tourism outreach are helping to bring people directly into the small agricultural towns.

The Low Flow Conveyance Channel, which runs from San Acacia to Elephant Butte, was begun in 1951. It was an effort to reduce evaporative and infiltration losses in the heavily braided and discontinuous river channel that turned to wetlands with lush vegetation by concentrating the water into a narrow and deep channel of concrete. The channel was also meant to control floodwaters after large quantities of sediment had settled at the northern end of Elephant Butte Reservoir and caused the loss of many towns and farms. It is a problematic structure that has decimated the local ecology and is heavily debated.

Pecan farm with dry lateral

Lawsuits, as mentioned in “The Past is Present,” are the most definitive way of getting relief in these uncertain times for water delivery. The three major lawsuits currently under litigation will take years to resolve, with business as usual continuing in the meantime. If water is available, it will be used by whomever can get it and keep it. But there are also the agreements that municipalities and institutions make between each other—sharing agreements—that bypass the long road of lawsuits for more immediate effect. This network of water professionals, engineers, managers, lawyers, etc., can all agree to move water around when necessary to help each other out, which creates a dynamic equilibrium within the status quo. This more expedient method of collaboration is unconventional, but is essential for the operation of water delivery in states involved in almost any water compact in the country.

No major changes to well use are presently anticipated. Well water is readily available when surface water is delayed or unavailable. Wells are drilled deeper as the water level in the aquifer drops, thus exacerbating the disconnection from the surface water. It is estimated that the aquifer recharges in wetter years, but there have been none for over 20 years now. Groundwater carries more dissolved solids and minerals than surface water, causing soil salinity issues. Drops in soil moisture could mean the loss of plant diversity and soil structure. Drilling wells and pumping costs money that farmers may not have available.

Evaporation rates at Elephant Butte have been estimated to be from about 10 feet annually to up to one-third of the total water volume each year. About 500,000 AF of water is used yearly by farmers downstream of the reservoir, whether in the form of surface or groundwater. Methods to curtail that evaporation could be a boon to the area. Two strategies are in play. One is to cover the reservoir in some manner. Black plastic balls of polyethylene were recently floated on the surface of the Los Angeles Reservoir to prevent evaporation. However, the widespread use of plastics and the potential for contamination from solar radiation degrading the materials could be problematic.

The second strategy would be to hold the water upstream in another reservoir, like El Vado. As noted by the Bureau of Reclamation, 2020 will again see below-average runoff. Once Elephant Butte reaches only 400,000 AF of storage, it will trigger restriction of storage in El Vado reservoir, as required by the Rio Grande Compact Article VII. Those restrictions help ensure that water will reach southern New Mexico and Texas. Reservoirs that store San Juan / Chama water are not similarly affected. But if the law were changed in favor of preventing evaporative losses and water could still be guaranteed to reach downstream users, this could be a viable change to the system.

Farmers have choices, as well, in the operation of their farmlands. Some farmers are digging deeper wells. Some are installing more efficient irrigation measures, like drip lines. Others are allowing fields to fallow more often. Each of these methods comes with a cost, either upfront or in profit. Crop changes are also suggested by some. But this would affect farmers significantly in terms of cultural production around important crops like Hatch Chile; the variety of crops grown would decrease; and farming might become even less viable economically than presently so.

Industrial farming currently receives massive amounts of funding and subsidies from the federal government, but small-scale or organic farms do not. If industrial farms were taxed to pay for the environmental costs of pesticides and herbicides, farming economics could shift in favor of organic local production. Even small farms can use cisterns and acequias while reducing the amount of water in fields through drip lines. It is not just sustenance or livelihood of small farmers at stake, but also the local culture with a long, complex history on the land.

In urban areas, stormwater reuse and conservation are becoming more popular. Green stormwater infrastructure systems can be executed on a small scale, but add up to a big difference. Supporting farmers markets in adjacent urban areas like Las Cruces could also increase economic viability and support a growing local food culture. These are both policy-based initiatives. A third policy change that could help maintain urban farms is to attach the water rights to the land and support urban farming efforts with local subsidies.

Rio Grande just south of the Leasburg Dam, adjacent to a pecan field. Wheel tracks can be seen in the river bed. Credit: Earth 2020

More-Radical Changes

We are at a defining point in the history of this part of the country. Settled before Jamestown, the lands along the Camino Real and Rio Grande are part of our heritage and our future.

Environment: Wildfire, drought, increased average temperatures, reduced snowpack, urbanization, expansion of the wildland interface, population increases, salination, and pollution are all ecological and environmental issues that impact water quality and quantity, as well as crop production. Over the last hundred-plus years, the water users of EBID in the Rio Grande Project area have persevered. Now instead of large-scale infrastructural changes like reservoirs, adaptation must come in the form of innovative irrigation techniques, green stormwater infrastructure, ecosystem services, etc.

Economy: Agriculture and tourism are the most valuable commercial activities in Sierra and Doña Ana counties. Distribution systems that depend on scale for profit may not suit this area best. Expansion of local distribution systems for crops, investment in local residents’ businesses, and investment in the health and safety of new immigrant workers would benefit this area greatly.

Society: Decolonization and social justice are complex concerns. The adaptation of people to this basin has occurred over many generations. The culture of small towns based on farm production has always been valued in the US. Making sure that access to fresh and plentiful water, to jobs and safe places to live, to education and the arts is available to all the people of this region is a challenge.

What is the role of expertise in these situations? Who are the experts? Are they the people who have lived here for generations, or government officials, or the newcomers working the fields who have the most to gain and lose? What are our values? What makes this place more or less valuable than any other river basin in the US? Climatic, economic, and social shifts are causing radical transformations for farmers in the Rio Grande Compact area. The role of expertise—of all kinds—will only become more essential in the future.

Leasburg Drain is full just south of the Leasburg Diversion Dam, while the Rio Grande has a trickle of water meandering through it nearby.

The residents of Sierra and Doña Ana Counties are agents in the political-ecological, political-economic, and socio-natural conditions under which they live. Separate consideration of environmental and human factors in discrete categories is no longer viable, and the continual shifts in water policy and governance acknowledge this. Any new policies or economic objective for this part of New Mexico must bring to bear the complexity within which the local culture operates. Although the farms in these counties need to adapt in space, material, and operation to embrace and adapt to the shifting political, climatic, and social conditions they face, they must do so in their own way.

These out-of-the-way places that are foundational to survival demonstrate how both event and construction make a place. The people who have lived here for hundreds of years have always made peace with a rapidly changing river. They have outlasted flood and drought—now, as the river faces new challenges brought on by aging infrastructure and climate shifts, newly imagined futures await.


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.