- Read the Observer’s story on June 2:
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
CORRALES – Rudy Perea and his family have cultivated fruit trees along the Rio Grande for generations.
His peaches, apples and cherries are a staple at local farmers markets.
But now the irrigation ditch that serves the Perea property is bone-dry, and it’s only June.
“I drilled a well, but it’s not enough,” he said. “I’m trying to save these trees. It’s going to wipe us out.”
Irrigation water deliveries for the village will come to a complete halt in the coming days if Rio Grande levels continue to drop as expected.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District manages irrigation from Cochiti Dam to Bosque del Apache.
Jason Casuga, the district’s CEO and chief engineer, acknowledged that aging infrastructure and limited water have placed Corrales farmers in an exceptionally difficult spot.
He commended district staff for coming up with a short-term fix that has delivered at least two cycles of irrigation water to the village.
“We did the best job that we could with the timing that we had,” Casuga said.
Problems began in late 2021, when district crews found a sinkhole above the Corrales siphon.
The 1,200-foot-long pipe, built in 1933, runs underneath the Rio Grande and uses gravity to move water to lands west of the river.
Crews then found a hole in the siphon.
“We tried to bring in equipment to pump out the water and were unable to pump the siphon dry,” Causga said, “so our ability to drain the siphon and fully inspect it to understand the damage was hampered.”
So the agency decided not to use the siphon at all this irrigation season.
The district approved a $911,000 contract with AUI Inc. in February to install two diesel-powered pumps and 350 feet of buried pipelines.
Pumps turned on in early April.
Since then, the system near Trailhead Beach has conveyed river water directly into the main Corrales canal.
“We’re getting water once a month right now on the apples, and they’re very stressed,” he said.
The siphon problems mean that Corrales farmers have only had two irrigation cycles this season.
That’s only half or even a third of what other area growers have received.
The district is working on scheduling a third watering, but that may benefit only a handful of farmers.
Wagner farms about 50 acres of orchards, corn, green chile and melons.
“If I lose a corn crop, you know, we’ll plant it again the next year with corn or chile,” Wagner said. “But you lose an apple tree, that’s 60 years of growth.”
Once water levels drop below a certain point, the Corrales pumps will be inoperable.
The loud diesel pumps are high-maintenance.
They also burn through oil and must be serviced once they reach a certain number of operating hours.
Sediment sometimes clogs the pump infrastructure.
Fire danger also impacts how the district operates the equipment.
About 800 gallons of diesel burning a stone’s throw from the bosque is a big concern during one of New Mexico’s earliest, most intense fire seasons.
A 24/7 pumping operation would require continuous monitoring.
“We can’t just go to bed and leave them on for 12 hours,” Casuga said. “When they are run through the night, someone goes out there every four to five hours and checks them.”
The district warned Corrales farmers before the season started about scarce irrigation water.
Farmers were advised about the district’s emergency fallowing program, which pays $425 an acre to not water for a season.
Corrales irrigators were allowed to enroll less than 1 acre, which is the program’s minimum for other farmers.
“We’re farmers, so we farm,” Wagner said. “The money would not be enough to cover expenses.”
But it’s an expensive alternative, and not very common in the area.
“My energy bill, I just got a statement that it went up 83%, because I’m using pumps to irrigate,” said Gus Van de Velde, who farms chile, blue corn, onions and fruit trees.
Drilling new wells is often an expensive process involving time-consuming water rights documentation. The deeper a farmer has to drill to tap into groundwater, the more costly the project is.