Elephant Butte Lake remains less than four percent full of water available to downstream users, including El Paso Water Utilities and its customers. While the number is telling, recent photos of the lake are even more striking. During the week of February 4-8, 2013, EPWU will dedicate its social media platforms to sharing photos and videos which demonstrate the drought’s impact on Elephant Butte Lake. (Special to the Times)
The water level at Elephant Butte Lake is down significantly compared with previous irrigation seasons because of the region’s prolonged, severe drought.
Water at the lake — so popular for boating, fishing and swimming — sits at less than 4 percent of water available to downstream users, including El Paso water customers and farmers, according to El Paso Water Utilities.
Martin Bartlett, spokesman for the utility, said recent photographs taken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation show dramatic effects of drought on the lake. As a result, the water utility plans to shift away from relying heavily on the Rio Grande for the city’s drinking water.
“El Paso Water Utilities plans to make up the difference by relying more heavily
on well water,” President and CEO John E. Balliew said. “We’re preparing by drilling new wells and building new pipelines to more efficiently move that water around the city.
“The bottom line is that we expect less river water again this year. For now, it’s just too early to know how much less,” Balliew said.
Water officials said that El Paso Water Utilities generally pumps half of its water supply from wells in the city. The other half comes from water released from Elephant Butte Lake into the Rio Grande.
The persistent drought in New Mexico and Colorado also means less river water than usual will be available to El Paso.
Most of the water stored at Elephant Butte begins as rain and snow falling in northern New
Mexico and Colorado.
Balliew said the ongoing drought, temperatures, wind speeds and humidity in those regions dictate how much of that water eventually reaches El Paso.
Jesus “Chuy” Reyes, general manager of El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, said the district’s customers, who include farmers, are being affected.
“I recently came back from southern Colorado, the Alamosa-Wolf Creek area, where the snowpack we depend on comes from, and things did not look good,” Reyes said.
“The farmers up there and other locals said they are concerned. We can still get some good snowfall up there between now and April, but we don’t really know that that will happen. We are at the mercy of the weather.”
Reyes said the irrigation season usually begins with water releases from Elephant Butte in March, but because of the drought, releases will be delayed until June.
“The water allocations may be also smaller this year,” Reyes said. “We have 58 wells in the district, but they don’t provide the same amount of water that we get from pumping the Rio Grande.”
Mexico, which by treaty is entitled to some of the Rio Grande water for Juárez area farmers, agreed to wait until June to receive its share of irrigation water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines drought as a period of persistent dry weather that endures long enough to cause serious problems, such as crop damage, water supply shortages or both.
According to NOAA’s website, these were the biggest droughts on record in the U.S. in modern history: