A combine harvests wheat to the south and east of State Highway 209 and Curry Road 17 June 2004 as storm clouds build in the distance. (CNJ file photo)
By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer
Mother Nature’s dousing of eastern New Mexico this year was a economic boon to the region, allowing farmers to cut irrigation costs and city officials to save thousands of dollars on water bills.
One of the wettest years in a century also took pressure off an already depleted Ogalalla Aquifer, the region’s prime source of well water.
In 2004, 28.8 inches of rain fell in Clovis and surrounding areas, up from an annual average of 17.84. From August to December, when the area wheat crop was being established, 14.71 inches of rain fell. Overall, it was the fourth wettest year on record since 1910.
“The rain definitely reduces (our water costs) quite a bit,” said Farwell farmer Mark Williams, who has planted 1,000 acres of wheat this year.
Williams said he measures irrigation costs as the cost of water plus the electrical costs associated with pumping the water. He said in a normal year he spends up to $40 per acre establishing his irrigated wheat. With all the moisture this fall, Williams said he has not had to irrigate his crop.
With a conservative estimate of $20 per acre saved because of heavy rainfall, the approximate savings across Curry County would be about $360,000 for irrigated wheat in 2004. That estimate assumes 18,000 acres of irrigated wheat in the county, the amount harvested the year before.
Other area farmers said the benefits of a wet season outweigh any problems it may cause at harvest time.
“The bottom line, I would take a repeat of last year,” said Jimmy Wedel, who has an organic farm near the state line.
He said the rain helped his peanut crop, but the moisture also allowed fungus to develop and caused some harvest loss. His 900 acres of corn, on the other hand, benefited across the board from the extra moisture.
“The rainfall was very beneficial in the fact that it saved me a lot with pumping costs,” he said. “On my corn acreage, it probably reduced my fuel cost as much as $75 per acre.”
Meanwhile, the city saved almost $30,000 in water costs from the 2003 cost of $243,000.
The municipal golf course and city softball fields have their own wells, but in dry seasons city officials often purchase more water for those properties.
The water needs of Clovis residents is serviced by 31 wells drawing from the Ogallala Aquifer, which extends from the southernmost part of the Texas panhandle as far north as South Dakota.
While 2004 was notably wetter than average years, 2003 was much drier than usual, receiving only 12.31 inches of precipitation all year. That’s nearly 16.5 inches less than 2004 and five inches below normal. Figures from New Mexico-American Water showed 255 million more gallons were pumped for the area in 2003 than 2004.
The city implemented a water conservation ordinance in 2003 to encourage residents to conserve, a needed measure in a town with the highest per capita water usage in the state, according to Clovis Community Relations Director Claire Burroughes.
“The citizens responded very, very positively, and we were very impressed …” Burroughes said.
Officials from the New Mexico State Engineer’s Office say the rains have reduced agriculture’s demand on the aquifer, but probably didn’t recharge it much.
“The main things about the rains is it has reduced the pumpage in the area, so the impact of the aquifer is decreased,” said Art Mason, district supervisor in the Roswell Office for the State Engineer’s Office. Mason said the water level in Curry County has remained right at 300 feet below the surface. In normal years the aquifer drops about one foot per year, he said.
The latest statistics compiled by the State Engineer’s Office show agriculture uses more than 93 percent of ground water pumped in Curry County.
Meteorologist Charlie Liles with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque said a persistent weather pattern tapping into moisture from the Pacific Ocean and also the Gulf of Mexico contributed to a wet 2004. On top of that, northern cold fronts added to the volatility of the atmosphere and caused more storms.
He said the el Nino in the Pacific will continue to contribute to a wet spring.
Water pumped (in 1,000s of gallons) by New Mexico-American Water Company in 2003 and 2004:
Source: New Mexico-American Water.