Farmers hoping for good news from this winter's snow pack

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LAS CRUCES (AP) — Farmers in southern New Mexico are hoping for more snow this winter as they try to recover from what was a historically dismal irrigation season in 2013.
Snowpack levels in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico will be closely watched in the first part of the year. So far, they’re better than last year.
Phil King, the water engineer for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, told the Las Cruces Sun-News that despite the early snow, there’s no indication this season will offer anything close to a full supply of water.
A federal report released Monday showed the Upper Rio Grande Basin was around 90 percent of normal for this time of year. That’s down from over 100 percent in early December.
Experts say the snowfall all but shut down in December.
“It seems like most of the storms that have come through are either skirting us to the north or they’re moisture starved,” said Wayne Sleep, a hydrologic technician with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Albuquerque. “It hasn’t been real favorable for snowpack development.”
The most important snowfall months are about to begin. January, February and March usually generate the bulk of the snowpack for a given season, experts say.
Dona Ana County farmer Robert Faubion said there’s a lot of interest among growers in the precipitation and irrigation runoff forecast for the coming spring. They use the information to make decisions about which crops to grow and whether they should leave land fallow.
“That’s really the decision every farmer has had to make the last few years,” said Faubion, an irrigation district board member. “Nobody likes it. Everybody is praying for a good snowpack and snowmelt.”
Snow in the high country melts each spring, runs into the Rio Grande and eventually makes its way into Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Reservoir, where it’s released to irrigate crops in Dona Ana County, El Paso County in Texas and Mexico.
While models seem to offer conflicting information about precipitation over the next few months, Sleep said there isn’t a strong indication there will be abundant snow or rain in the Rio Grande watershed.
“Based on what’s gone on the last few years, I would error toward drier,” he said of the forecast. “As early as it is, it’s kind of hard to tell much right now.”
Last spring’s runoff was dismal. In addition to a shortage of snow, dry ground soaked up runoff, keeping it from reaching the river.
This year, the ground is not as dry. Another boon, King said, is that historic rainfall in September helped to boost the levels of Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Reservoir. Even if the snowfall this winter doesn’t materialize, irrigators will still have more water than in 2013.
It will be March before officials decide how water in Elephant Butte will get allocated.