Early start for Middle Rio Grande irrigation, outlook cautious

Early start to Middle Rio Grande irrigation season this year. Image the Rio Grande.
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  • Snowpack above average in most areas, but accumulation needs to continue.
  • Irrigation season starts February 26th, earlier than recent years.
  • District can’t store some water due to reservoir restrictions.
  • Water managers urge users to remain conservative despite early start.
  • Summer, fall irrigation deliveries could be limited without monsoon rains.

March 1, 2024 — The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) has geared up for an earlier-than-usual irrigation seasonOpens in a new tab. starting on February 26th as it begins the delicate balance of managing water resources amid improving snowpack and lingering uncertainties. Created by the New Mexico state legislature in 1923, MRGCDOpens in a new tab. operates, maintains and manages irrigation, drainage and river flood control in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Snowpack Conditions and Outlook.

While snowpack levels in most basins feeding the Rio Grande exceed the 30-year average, water operations division manager Anne Marken stressed to the Board (see video below) that ongoing accumulation is crucial for strong spring runoff. This is particularly critical in the Rio Grande Headwaters, where snowpack remains below peak median levels.

Storage Challenges.

Despite the encouraging snowpack outlook, the MRGCD faces storage restrictions this year. Work on El Vado Reservoir means native Rio Grande water (from within the basin) cannot be stored there. The district is working to secure space in another reservoir and will have its San Juan-Chama project allocation, which is not subject to the same restrictions.

Water Availability and Conservation.

Marken warns that even with a good spring runoff, water users should be prepared for possible limited water availability in the summer and fall months if monsoon rains don’t materialize. The MRGCD will likely use its San Juan-Chama water allocation to offset low flows after the runoff subsides.

The current situation mirrors the challenges the Rio Grande region faces. New Mexico remains in debt under the Rio Grande Compact, a multi-state water-sharing agreement, though the state’s debt is expected to be smaller at the end of 2023 than in 2022.

weather outlook
Screenshot of board presentation showing weather outlook.

The Importance of Weather.

As the MRGCD begins charging canals and preparing the irrigation network, water managers and users alike are keeping a close eye on the weather – hoping for continued snow accumulation and timely summer rains to make the most of this year’s water supply.

The Rio Grande River as seen at Truth or Consequences, New MexicoOpens in a new tab., 2015. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


Since 1995, Deborah has owned and operated LegalTech LLC with a focus on water rights. Before moving to Arizona in 1986, she worked as a quality control analyst for Honeywell and in commercial real estate, both in Texas. She learned about Arizona's water rights from the late and great attorney Michael Brophy of Ryley, Carlock & Applewhite. Her side interests are writing (and reading), Wordpress programming and much more.

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