Pecan orchards in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley started leafing out the second week of April, flowering shortly after that, and reached peak bloom in early May.
“Right now, trees are looking good,” says Jeff Anderson, New Mexico State University Extension Agricultural Agent for Doña Ana County.
Typical April winds were particularly strong through the valley this year. “Normally, we expect winds of about 30 mph to 40 mph at this time of year, but this year they’ve approached speeds of 60 mph to 70 mph and have lasted all day.”
“The wind caused a lot of injury to tender, new leaves, drying them out and sandblasting the leaf margins,” he says.
The valley’s drought continues — it’s the worst in four decades, The water table here has dropped 40 feet or more in just the last few years, he says, and the impact of reduced water supplies was evident last year. “Pecan production was definitely off in 2011,” Anderson says. “Some of that may have been the result of damage from sub-zero temperatures in February 2011. But, the biggest percent of the loss in production last year was, flat out, the drought.”
The trees didn’t get enough water to fill kernels properly, resulting in smaller nuts, he says. The shortage of water also disrupted formation of the abscission layer, which led to more stick-tights on the trees in the fall.
Mesilla Valley growers depend on winter snows in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado for most of their irrigation water. Water from the melting snow flows down the Rio Grande River to Elephant Butte Dam, near Truth or Consequences, N.M. Completed in 1916, the dam forms a 40-mile long Bureau of Reclamation reservoir.
Earlier this spring, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District reported that conditions in the watershed remained severely impacted by dry conditions, minimal monsoons and a 50-percent average snow pack. As a result the initial water allocation for district growers this year has been reduced to 6 inches per acre. That may be adjusted if more water becomes available. The first release of water for the Mesilla Valley is scheduled for May 15.
This year’s water allocation is only about 10 percent of the 5 acre feet of total water needed to grow a pecan crop, Anderson says. Still, it’s more than last year’s 4 acre inch allocation for the season. In the past, the valley’s pecan growers have received 3 acre-feet or more of district water to support trees through the growing season.
Meteorological factors, however, aren’t the only reason for this year’s skimpy supply of surface water for irrigation. Under a 1906 convention, Mexico has the right to 60,000 acre-feet of water released from the Elephant Butte and Caballo dams. Because of the current drought, the U.S. has agreed to provide only about a fifth of that amount — 12,000 acre feet. However, through the International Boundary and Water Commission, Mexico requested this year’s allotment by March 26. It was delivered April 6.
“People don’t understand why Mexico received this water before growers here are scheduled to get it,” Anderson says. “That’s going to result in the loss of a lot of water needed just to move Mexico’s allocation across the border. The situation is going to create a huge economic loss for Mesilla Valley growers.”
Shallow wells have gone dry already. “About all you can do in that situation is try to get a permit to drill deeper or work with a neighbor to get more,” he says
Deeper wells are not foolproof. “The deeper water maycontain more salts. So, pecan farmers have to pump even more deep water to leach out salts. Everyone is praying that the drought will break so we can start getting more water.”