Drought conditions are forcing onion growers to use wells for irrigation this season.

According to Rosie Lack, owner of Lack Farms, Rincon, N.M., Elephant Butte Irrigation District consists of about 93,000 irrigated acres along the Rio Grande in south-central New Mexico.

Water allotments for growers are based on condition of the lake, anticipated runoff, and delivery agreements between Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and parts of Mexico.

Estimated acreage of New Mexico onion production is around 8,000 acres, 5,000 of which are in this water district, Lack said. The remaining acreage does not have surface water and relies strictly on underground irrigation.

“This was the worst snowpack in the last 100 years of recorded history,” which affected the surface water allotments, Lack said.

Chris Cramer, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, said the typical water allocation for farmers is 3 acre-feet, and though he is unsure of the official allocation for this year, he heard that a meager 3 acre-inches was considered.

In some locations, no allotments were given.

“As farmers, we didn’t receive any surface water allotments this year so we’ve had to pump water from underground,” said Chris Franzoy, owner of Young Guns Produce Inc., Hatch, N.M.

Franzoy mentioned that the water table has dropped some as a result.

Others agree conditions are serious.

“There is no water from the reservoirs,” said Steven Smith, president and owner of National Onion Inc., Las Cruces.

“Wells can go for so long, but then those have to be refilled as well,” he said.

In addition to the stress of running out of water, growers have to deal with the added unknowns that come from pumping water for irrigation.

Water quality

“When there is not enough surface water, salts cannot be moved deeper into the soil profile,” Cramer said.

This can cause a reduction in yields.

“High salt levels can kill small onion plants, reducing plant stand. As the plants become larger, high salt levels impede their growth and they do not become as large as they could be. As a result, bulb yields can be lower,” Cramer said.

Growers are hoping the water quality isn’t an issue, and water treatment is a potential solution for several soil conditions, Lack said.

“Because of our high desert climate and short rainfall, we have high alkaline soil,” she said. “We must apply high acids to neutralize.”

This year, a different practice is being utilized, which involves running sulfuric acids in the irrigation water at each application.

“We need quality river water to flush the minerals that have accumulated on soil surface. In the meantime, we apply more and more water conditioners, to treat irrigation water,” Lack said.

Even with treatment, water could be an issue.

“High salinity levels could impact overall production somewhat, so we expect maybe lower than normal production in some cases. However, water quality varies from county to county, so those with better water will have a better crop,” Franzoy said.

Added costs

In addition, growers have to deal with the added cost of production that comes with running pumps for irrigation.

“It certainly costs more to run the pumps versus irrigating with surface water because pumps use diesel, gas or electricity,” Franzoy said.

To compensate, growers are hoping for higher prices to match steady demand.

“We’re hoping for higher f.o.b.s this season. And we do expect a slightly smaller crop overall than we’ve had in previous years,” Franzoy said.