For much of the last three weeks, water flowing through the Rio Grande has sparkled across El Paso under the early summer sun – a welcome sign for Borderland farmers who saw water arrive this year weeks earlier than last year’s short, drought-stricken irrigation season

The early release of water into the riverbed comes as the Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico 120 miles north of El Paso is at 27% capacity, more than twice as full as it was this time last year. There’s currently more water in Elephant Butte than anytime since spring 2020, according to the Texas Water Development Board, the state agency that plans and finances water projects 

The early arrival of water and deeper reserves at the lake represent a welcome respite for water planners and the region’s farmers, who grow mostly pecans, cotton and alfalfa across the Upper and Lower Valleys.

“The past few years, we’ve not been able to release (water) until June, due to the fact that we don’t have any water in the reservoir at Elephant Butte upstream,” said Jay Ornelas, general manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, which manages irrigation infrastructure and delivers water for farmers in El Paso. 

“We started on May 17 with the allocation, which has brought great excitement, and everyone is happy to get some water here for this 2023 season,” he said.

The early arrival of Rio Grande water to the Borderland this year is the result of heavy wintertime snowfall in the mountains of southern Colorado near Pagosa Springs, which produced the thickest snowpack in five years.

The Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico holds back the reservoir of water, which is nearly twice as high in 2023 as compared to 2022. Higher water levels have allowed for water releases into the Rio Grande. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

There’s a bit of luck involved, too: The snow has to accumulate in the right place – generally around Wolf Creek in Colorado – so it melts and enters the Rio Grande watershed. Snowpack in the mountains further north or west wouldn’t benefit the Rio Grande much, water experts said.

That melting snow in Colorado has been feeding the Rio Grande and boosting water levels at Elephant Butte, which fell to under 4% capacity amid a drought last August. 

“What we see flowing in the river here is very much influenced by what happens in terms of the snowfall in the headwaters area, and then how the snow melts,” said Alex Mayer, director of the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso. “This is a very good year compared to what we’ve seen for about the last 20 years or so. Very welcome for the farmers and the irrigation districts.”

Flows from the Rio Grande can supply El Paso with as much as half of the city’s water supply in a good year, or as little as 10% in a bad drought year, said Scott Reinert, a hydrogeologist and water resources manager for El Paso Water. To make up the difference when the river is dry, the city-owned water utility pumps more groundwater from the subterranean Hueco Bolson aquifer. But relying only on groundwater in El Paso would unsustainably deplete the aquifer over time, he said. 

“When our river is lacking, we have to pump up groundwater. Much more. So when we have river supply, it allows us to back off of our wells quite a bit,” Reinert said, adding the Rio Grande is producing around 60 million gallons per day of water for El Paso customers. “That means most of our demand is met through river water.”

A view of Elephant Butte Lake from the southern tip of the reservoir. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

From the mid-1980s to around 2003, Elephant Butte was full much of the time, which allowed farmers to irrigate from March through October, Ornelas said. 

For cotton growers, an earlier release of water allows farmers to pre-wet their field before planting cotton. Pecan and alfalfa crops, meanwhile, need water periodically from March through October, especially as temperatures rise in the summer, Ornelas said. 

When there’s not enough water from the river, it forces growers who have wells on their property to pump water from underground using electric-powered pumps, which creates a “significant cost” for a farmer, Ornelas said. And groundwater can be salty, which can damage crops and land over time. 

“And for those that don’t have wells, they either irrigate with a waterhose or they don’t irrigate at all” if there’s no river water, Ornelas said. “At that point, you’re kind of just wondering if I’ll be able to keep my tree alive or my crop.”

Camping trailers sit at the very edge of the shore of Elephant Butte Lake on May 31. One year ago, with the reservoir at less than ten percent capacity, this sandy peninsula had extended far enough into the lake to connect with outlying islands and rock formations. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the 2000s, water levels in Elephant Butte fell off from the prior decades and have remained low for the last 20 years. The reservoir experienced a similar multi-decade drought around the 1950s and 1960s, which has made it complicated for water planners to predict how much water the Rio Grande will supply year-to-year.

And climate change is complicating the water supply situation in El Paso even more. 

Mayer said that over the last two decades, snow in the mountains of southern Colorado has melted later in the year, and more of the snow evaporates into the air rather than flowing into the river bed than in prior years. And when snow does melt into the river, the increasingly dry soil absorbs more water than in the past. 

The impacts of climate change “are going to result in more extremes across the board,” Mayer said. “Maybe more extreme wet years, but also, more importantly, more extreme drought years in the southwest.”

It’s difficult to draw any long-term conclusions from the elevated water levels in Elephant Butte and the early arrival of water in the Rio Grande this year, however. Ornelas said he hopes it’s the start of another 1980s-era water boom, when the irrigation district could release water as early as March each year. 

But for now, the county Water Improvement District No. 1 is building storage facilities and ponds to capture any excess rain water to store for the future. Ornelas said water from the Rio Grande is essential to “sustain” farmers in the area.  

“The cautionary story of this is that it’s an improvement. For now, it’s a breath of fresh air,” Reinert, of El Paso Water, said. “But then in September, October, we’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to need another big snowpack again next year. So we’re a little better than last year because of the snowpack, but we’re still what we consider to be in a drought situation.”

Diego Mendoza-Moyers is a reporter covering energy and the environment. An El Paso native, he has previously covered business for the San Antonio Express-News and Albany Times Union, and reported for the...