U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced $5.3 million in federal grants for programs that will help farmers and ranchers find new ways to adapt to severe drought and other extreme climate changes.
Drought is causing problems for water users throughout Texas, the El Paso region and farmers in Mexico.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working diligently to help American farmers and ranchers rebound from last year's drought and prepare for future times of climatic extremes," Vilsack said in a telephone interview.
"The grants are an excellent way to invest in new technology and approaches that will help our farmers, ranchers and rural communities be more resilient in the future. Most of the projects are affiliated
with universities, and are helping to determine cutting-edge practices."
Vilsack said last year's drought was the worst since the 1950s, and had serious impacts on farmers and ranchers across the country. With another possible drought this year, he said the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service is doing its part to help.
Texas A&M's AgriLife, which operates in El Paso and in other Texas communities, is one of the USDA's Conservation Innovation Grant recipients.
USDA awarded AgriLife $233,000 to develop guidelines for managing irrigation under drought conditions and computer programs for linking weather stations with irrigation scheduling.
USDA also awarded $640,000 to the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which represents 57
Native American tribes in 19 states, including New Mexico, to evaluate how traditional and historical practices helped tribes deal with drought, develop a best-practices database, and use the subsequent information for training and demonstration projects.
Recipients are required to match 50 percent of the total cost of their project programs with non-federal resources.
Vilsack said the grant projects will address drought-related issues, including grazing management, warm-season forage systems, irrigation strategies and innovative cropping systems.
Projects will evaluate innovative, field-based conservation technologies and approaches leading to improvements, such as enhancing the soil's ability to hold water, and also will examine best irrigation water practices and the most efficient drought-tolerant grazing systems.
The ongoing drought is expected to hurt the El Paso region's agricultural economy, but to what extent depends on how much longer the dry conditions continue.
"In a good year, agriculture pumps about $14 billion into our economy," said Jesus "Chuy" Reyes, general manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, which serves numerous small and large irrigation tract customers. "Among our most important crops are pecans, which are grown on about 18,000 acres of land, and pima cotton, which are grown on about 30,000 acres. Other important crops in our area are alfalfa, wheat and onions."
"Currently, we proposed giving our farmers an allocation of 6-inches per acre foot of water on June 1," Reyes said. "Last year, we provided an allocation of one-foot per acre feet of water in April. Normally, the irrigation district allocates 4-feet per acre feet of water, and releases it to irrigators in March."
An acre foot of water is 325,839 gallons.
Johnny Stubbs, who has been farming in El Paso for 43 years, said he suspects that drought conditions will continue the rest of the year.
"We would require a major water event for things to improve in the short term," said Stubbs, who serves on the irrigation district's board of directors. "Currently, we are relying on a water supply that is located 175 miles north of El Paso in New Mexico."
Stubbs, who grows pecans, cotton and alfalfa, said that in light of the small water allocation that's expected, he and other farmers are resorting to supplemental wells to water their crops this year.
"We have practiced good conservation measures for years," Stubbs said. "There's not a farmer that I know of that wastes even a drop of water. It's their life and their livelihood."
These days, anyone who looks for the Rio Grande that divides El Paso and Juarez will find only a dry bed of sand and brush. That's because the river begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico with snowpack from the mountains of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico and this year's snowfall has been much lighter than usual.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation/El Paso Field Division is responsible for delivering irrigation water from the Rio Grande system to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District in southern New Mexico, the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 and Mexico's government. The office also manages the storage of Rio Grande Project water at Elephant Butte and the Caballo Reservoir.
Filiberto Cortez, manager of the Bureau's El Paso Field Division, said there is "almost no water to allocate. We won't know until mid-May exactly how much of an allocation we will have for everyone. The outlook for the snowpack was worse than expected. The previous projection was 39 percent of a 30-year average, but that was adjusted downward to 14 percent."
Cortez said he's not sure yet how much water Mexico can expect this year.
Juarez farmers rely on the Rio Grande to water their crops in the Valle de Juarez, which across the border opposite from El Paso's Lower Valley region.
The El Paso Water Utilities also depends on the Rio Grande allocation for about 50 percent of the city's drinking supply.
"The city won't get its allocation either until June 1," Cortez said. "While this drought continues, we all need to strengthen our water conservation efforts, and our farmers need to find more efficient ways to use the water they have."
Martin Bartlett, spokesman for El Paso Water Utilities, said that during times of drought the water utility relies more heavily on groundwater sources and continued conservation.
EPWU is also building and or finishing work on new water pipelines that will transport and distribute water from aquifers and bolsons more efficiently, he said.
"When it comes to conservation, we are considered a world leader," Bartlett said. "People from throughout the United States and countries like Egypt have come to study our conservation methods and learn from us."
EPWU will conduct several workshops this week on how to irrigate lawns more efficiently, regardless of size, and offer advice from experts with Texas A&M's AgriLife and others on harvesting rain water, xeriscaping and caring for desert plants.
The workshops will take place today, Friday and Saturday, at the TecH2o Water Resources Learning Center, 10751 Montana in East El Paso. Details are available at www.tech2o.org.
"We want to remind everyone, and point out for people who are new to the community, that our odd/even days watering schedule is in place year-round, but that we are now in that phase where we need to also abide by the watering times," Bartlett said. "In this climate, any water you use on lawns that is not applied in the early morning or evening will simply evaporate quickly."
USDA Secretary Vilsack said coming up with the funds for the grant projects was challenging due to recent federal budget cuts that USDA and the other federal agencies had to absorb in a short period.
The budget reductions totaled 7.6 percent for USDA, and 5 percent was from this year's sequestration alone.
"This means 2,000 to 3,000 farmers aren't getting any help this year, after we've had to close 260 field offices. We're also not filling any vacancies," Vilsack said.
One of the things that has to happen soon, Vilsack said, is for the federal government to come up with a better way of forecasting the weather to increase the lead time that farmers and ranchers have for planning purposes.
To make this happen, he said, USDA is coordinating more closely than ever before with the U.S. Commerce Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He also said farmers of small and large tracts will benefits from the technologies and information that all the projects turn out.
"It's an investment in the future," he said.
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