The Rio Grande is at an all time low.


The Land of Enchantment may have spectacular desert landscapes, hot springs that bubble, remarkable national monuments and magnificent snow-capped mountains, but it also has drought. One of the worst on record. There’s another abysmal runoff forecast again this year, and the state already has a bill for billions of gallons it must pay in water, not dollars. New Mexico accrued its heavy water debt from last year’s release from El Vado Reservoir of 12 billion gallons to keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque and boost river flows to extend central New Mexico’s irrigation season. With minimal water expected from the blue skies again this year, more will be added to New Mexico’s water debt. Right now, New Mexico owes Texas a large quantity of water per the multistate water-sharing agreement known as the Rio Grande Compact. Even in the aftermath of a drought-stricken growing season.

As a high mountain dessert, you can look out across the state’s landscapes in the early evening and see the state motto, Crescit Eundo, in action. Translated as “It grows as it goes,” the phrase traces back to Roman philosopher Lucretius, who used it to describe the atom by atom expansion of a lightning bolt. The thunderbolts slashing across our state’s skyline for miles rival any fireworks display— other than President Biden’s inauguration. Along with the Crescit Eundo, rain comes down in torrents. And if the wind blows the storm your way, any moisture will evaporate and disappear before you see a trace of it in the soil.

Chile farmers have been battling New Mexico’s drought, salty soil, worker shortages and the coronavirus pandemic. For many farmers it has been several years since they planted a field or had good crop yields. When there’s no water from the Rio Grande, farmers pump from underground aquifers, which have a high salt content that harms the chile’s roots. Some farmers are drip irrigating, which uses less water and can push the salt away from damaging the roots.

Chiles are central to the state’s economy and identity. In 2019 the average price of chile was $793 per ton and accounted for $50M in sales within New Mexico. COVID-19 has had an impact on the chile market as restaurants close or are minimally open, forcing farmers to look for new venues to sell whatever they are able to produce. Chile is much more than a hot vegetable crop, it’s the heart and soul of the Enchanted Land—essential to its cuisine, art and culture for centuries. Chiles are also the source of the official state question, “Red or Green?”

If La Niña has her way, zero allotment is around the corner for the 2021 growing season. That means no river water for chile and that makes for a very bad year in New Mexico.

Even with all the water bills on the legislative docket this year, political action may not be able to keep pace with water scarcity. In 2019 New Mexico’s largest river, the Rio Grande, dried for more than 40 miles at its headwaters. If La Niña has her way, zero allotment is around the corner for the 2021 growing season. According to the most recent map from the U.S. Drought Monitor, 42 percent of the state suffers from “severe drought,” with Santa Fe and the surrounding area given the most severe category the center issues—“exceptional drought” conditions. According to the Carlsbad Current-Argus, Aron Balok, superintendent of the Pecos Valley Artesian Conservatory District said New Mexico could struggle to deliver water to Texas when the drought subsides, as higher water levels mean more is owed to Texas and more can be lost in transport to evaporation.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s declaration of emergency drought conditions in December 2020 could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions. While this week’s moisture is certainly a relief to the state, chile planting season is coming up soon. 2021 may not bring enough water to produce enough chile to answer the question, “Red or Green?”

This story is a staff report from The Paper.