Farmers in Corrales will have to rely on pumps, and the whims of Mother Nature, to get through one more growing season before the Corrales Siphon can be replaced. That was the bad news delivered by Jason Casuga, chief engineer and CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, to the village council and farmers in attendance at the Oct. 24 village council meeting.

Casuga said the project to replace a collapsed pipe that ran below the river and supplied water to Corrales ditches and acequias was on schedule. Though he couldn’t as yet provide design details, he said that the gravity driven siphon should be operational by March 2025. 

“I know that’s not ideal. I know we have farmers in the room that have concerns about getting water,” he said, adding that he would meet with them to answer their questions outside the council chamber when he finished speaking.

After the old wooden pipe beneath the river collapsed three years ago, a temporary fix – first operated by a diesel generator, then switched over to electric power this year – has been pumping water from the river into Corrales’ irrigation system. 

But only when there’s enough water in the Rio Grande to support it. This year, spring runoff kept the river flowing adequately through the first half of the growing season. But low water levels shut the system down in mid August, frustrating farmers who have already been suffering through decades of drought.

Addressing criticism

In an interview last week, Casuga said he had a good talk with the farmers that met him outside.

“It was good; very cordial,” he said. “Not everyone had the sentiment that was read during the meeting. A lot of people have followed the issue and have seen what’s been done.”

Casuga was referring to part of an email from Bonnie Gonzales of the Corrales Growers Market, who has been critical of MRGCD’s response to the problem, sent to councilors and read aloud by Councilor Stuart Murray. The councilor invited Casuga to respond to her saying that “Corrales farmers are tired of being bumped to the end of the line.”

Casuga said it was “inaccurate” and “relatively unfair” to say that MRGCD staff wasn’t working as hard as they can to address Corrales’ needs. He noted that MRGCD expediated $9.5 million in grant funding to complete the siphon project. The board of directors also approved a mill levy that will provide $6.5 million for infrastructure improvements throughout the district, which runs along the Rio Grande from Cochiti to near Elephant Butte. 

The failure of the siphon was cited by the MRDCD as an example of the need for infrastructure improvements.

He also said it takes time to go through the bureaucracy, accounting and legalities to secure the funding, emphasizing that the project was “exactly” on schedule. 

Casuga said he empathized with farmers and understood their frustrations. He said that the MRGCD was working through it as fast as it can.

“We’ve taken every reasonable step to prioritize Corrales,” he said.

‘Working through’

At the outset of his talk, Casugha said that he purposely didn’t bring any maps to share with the council. That’s because they are still working with Sandia Pueblo on land use issues on the other side of the river. He said he wasn’t comfortable showing any maps before Sandia signed off on plans upstream.

Casuga said that while about 90% of the construction for the siphon is underground, workers need room to stage and conduct the work. They can work within existing easements on the pueblo, he said, but there will also be areas that require the removal of vegetation on both sides of the river.

“We’re trying to keep the work within the easements, but it’s a large project,” he said.

Casuga said MRGCD is “working through” the land use issues with the pueblo. He said he’d be happy to return with a full presentation with the maps at a later date.

Councilor Mel Knight said she noticed that there was water in acequias not far away in Albuquerque’s north valley, but not in Corrales and asked why.

“The only way to get water in Corrales is through the siphon,” Casuga explained. 

Right now, the siphon isn’t operational, so there’s no water coming into the village from the river, he said. Historically, before the pipe collapsed, Corrales relied on gravity to funnel water through the underground pipe and into the village’s network of irrigation channels. That will be the case again once the siphon is replaced. But because water levels in the river are so low, it’s physically impossible to pump from the river, he said.

Dam it

Casuga was also asked about the status of the dispute over the Rio Grande Compact, which requires a certain amount of water from the river to flow from New Mexico into Texas. The Lone Star State sued its next door neighbor, alleging the Land of Enchantment wasn’t holding up its end of the bargain. 

Casuga said the compact primarily impacts the lower Rio Grande south of Elephant Butte.

“Our biggest issue is meeting the delivery to Elephant Butte,” he said.

Casuga said the lack of water in the Middle Rio Grande Valley experienced in recent years is largely due construction at El Vado dam in northern New Mexico. The aging dam needed to be drained for repairs, and issues with the contractor hired to do the job have created delays.

“Had we had El Vado, Corrales would have had water year round,” he said.

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