Wagner Farms apple orchard threatened by problems with irrigation


When the well runs dry, we know the worth of water – Benjamin Franklin


Corrales farmers are facing two significant challenges in keeping their crops irrigated this year: a statewide drought and aging infrastructure.

For the third year in a row, New Mexico is experiencing an extreme drought. Rain has been too infrequent and snowpack runoff too light to replenish rivers and reservoirs.

Corrales farmers have faced droughts in the past and have survived.

This year, however, they have also been hit with aging infrastructure — the siphon that brings water from the Rio Grande to the acequia has broken.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), the entity responsible for delivering water from the Rio Grande into the acequia, now relies on diesel pumps to get water into the acequia.

The problem is the pumps are inefficient. They don’t provide a steady, uninterrupted flow of water into the acequia as the siphon did.

The siphon enabled a constant, steady flow of water into the acequia, something the pumps can’t do, said Seth Wagner, 20, of Corrales’ Wagner Farms.

According to Jason Casuga, the CEO of MRGCD, the pumps run 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, and 24-hours-a-day Friday through Monday. This is still an abbreviated schedule from what the siphon enabled, and farmers are frustrated, believing the MRGCD should be doing more.

What Seth and his father are most concerned about is the Wagner’s 12-acre apple orchard. The orchard, on the original land the Wagner family purchased in 1910, was planted 60 years ago and includes a variety of apples, such as Gala, Golden Delicious, and Winesap. An apple orchard, if it fails, takes time to re-establish.

This early in the growing season, the orchard wasn’t looking good. Leaf growth was sparse even though Wagner said the orchard had recently been watered: “And this isn’t even the bad side [of the orchard].”

“These are what my dad [Anthony Wagner] is most concerned with,”
he said. “Because you know, you can’t just plant it and next year have your crops…It takes a long time to grow before you have a return.”

The apple orchard is a mainstay in Corrales and is featured every fall in the Wagner Farms Annual Apple and Pumpkin Festival.

The irrigation problems, specifically the broken siphon, threaten that orchard and its link to the early days of Corrales.

The MRGCD seems aware of the problems Wagner Farms and others face this season, but Casuga wasn’t encouraging. Built in the 1930s, the siphon is proving tough to repair. Built of cement and wood, it appears to be leaking, yet it is still connected to the river, making it impossible to drain.

Casuga explained that “MRGCD is currently working through an alternative analysis with Wilson & Company to determine the most feasible way to address the siphon. My goal is to have an alternative chosen sometime in the fall.”

Casuga said he expected a pumping operation would be needed in 2024 as well, and that the MRGCD was working with PNM to establish power at the siphon outlet so that electrical pumps could be used next year instead of diesel pumps.

Not only are diesel pumps inefficient and expensive to operate, they are also not particularly safe. Diesel fuel is flammable, and the pumps are adjacent to the Bosque, which due to the drought is dry.

Making the situation even worse is that El Vado dam is not available to store water.
“El Vado Dam is also being rehabilitated by the US Bureau of Reclamation and is unavailable for native storage of Rio Grande Water till 2024 at the earliest,” Casuga said.

The MRGCD, he added, has a run-of-the-river system of irrigation. The only water available is what’s in the river, and that system is likely to stay in place a while longer.

Earlier this year, the MRGCD urged farmers to leave their fields fallow this year, if possible, and offered compensation for doing so. Although Casuga did not know how many farmers opted to leave their fields fallow this year, he speculated that next year there will be an uptick in applications since the irrigation issues are unlikely to be resolved before then.

As if the drought and the aging infrastructure weren’t bad enough, New Mexico ended 2021 owing Texas 127,000 acre-feet of water under the provisions of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

The compact, which includes Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, outlines how water is to be allocated fairly, so those downstream will not end up dry.

An acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons—enough to cover an acre of land, so 127,000 acre-feet is quite a bit of water to owe, especially in a drought.