Rio Grande at Wagon Wheel Gap, 8 miles downstream from Creede, Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hundreds of farmers along central New Mexico’s stretch of the Rio Grande face a second straight year of having their irrigation supplies cut off early.

The board that oversees the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District voted Friday to end deliveries for irrigation a month early because of low water availability.

The Oct. 1 shutoff means winter crops like those grown by Travis Harris just north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are at risk.

“This is my livelihood,” Harris told the Albuquerque Journal. “This is how I live day to day for my family.”

Harris grows alfalfa and wheat just like his father and grandfather did, often planting corn as food for birds migrating along the Rio Grande.

Irrigation managers said the shutoff is necessary because of long-term drought and a large water debt owed to users in southern New Mexico and Texas.

“We understand this could potentially cause people to lose their farms,” said Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board member Stephanie Russo Baca, who represents Valencia County. “We’re not taking it lightly.”

The district’s decision is driven in part by the 1939 Rio Grande Compact, which governs river water deliveries among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

New Mexico already owes about 43 billion gallons to downstream users under the compact. If that deficit reaches 65 billion gallons, New Mexico could face more restrictions on accessing stored water from El Vado Reservoir.

MORE: Amid drought, a changing climate and population growth, can Colorado’s unique water law system survive?

Mike Hamman, the irrigation district’s CEO and chief engineer, said that a years-long cycle of accruing water debts during drought is not the answer for long-term water management.

“We’re digging a deep hole,” Hamman said.

Cutting irrigation diversions early will help “chip our way out of this mess” of water debts, Hamman said. Doing so would increase deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

“Mother Nature is not providing (the water), so we have to adjust,” he said. “It’s not us taking it away from anybody, because the water is not even going to be there in October to do anything with, unless some miracle happens.”

The district has been dealing with shortages for years. It delayed this year’s spring irrigation season start date by a month, and last fall it also ended deliveries a month early.

Valencia County dairy farmer Mikey Smith said local agriculture “will not exist anymore” if the district does not re-examine how to equitably distribute water and evaluate inefficient water use by some irrigators.

“Some of the biggest dairies we never thought were going to go out have all sold off,” Smith said. “They can’t afford to feed their animals.”

A longer irrigation season could have harmed New Mexico’s standing as Texas pursues U.S. Supreme Court litigation over water deliveries, said Chuck DuMars, the irrigation district’s lawyer.

“It would not be good optics, if we had gone forward and continued to increase the debit,” DuMars said.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the amount of the deficit that would prompt additional restrictions to 65 billion gallons.

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