Severe Drought on the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande basin will soon enter its third decade of drought. This somber fact is well known to all the water managers on the river. The drought has affected their storage and deliveries and led to crop loss. Yet it has also inspired impressive feats of water conservation, planning, and environmental restoration. This month, Irrigation Leader brings you the stories of irrigation district managers along the entire length of the Rio Grande. 

According to Treasurer/Manager Gary Esslinger, the 18-year drought that Elephant Butte Irrigation District is undergoing is now approaching the severity of the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s. The district, headquartered in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is fighting back with initiatives including conservation, piping, metering, and on-farm efficiencies. 

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), headquartered in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is trying to balance fluctuating water supplies derived from snowpack and runoff with heavy delivery requirements dictated by the Rio Grande Compact and federal regulations. MRGCD CEO and Chief Engineer Mike Hamman tells us how the district is dealing with shortage and increasing efficiency. 

Rio Grande water is also diverted for agricultural purposes at the very end of its course, near the Gulf of Mexico. Sonia Lambert, the manager of Cameron County Irrigation District #2, tells us about how her district is dealing with water shortages through infrastructure upgrades and conservation initiatives, both in the district’s system and on water users’ farms. 

Finally, we look at the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. San Luis Valley Irrigation District Superintendent Robert Phillips tells us that his district’s diversions have decreased by a quarter since 2001. When the drought started, farmers in the valley quickly drained all its aquifers, but soon recognized the importance of conservation and reduced groundwater consumption, leading to the aquifers’ recovery. 

We also hear in this issue from Sam Barrick of SePRO, who tells us about his company’s chemical products for the irrigation market. 

From southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande provides crucial irrigation supplies. The hardworking irrigation district managers all along its course are engaging in upgrades, conservation, and planning to make sure that farmers can continue to grow their crops even during this time of drought. 

Kris Polly is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and the president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at