WHEN is it a Good Time to Save Water and Create Habitat?

Posted by Karen Ray on April 6, 2018 5:21 PM

(EBID Staff Report) 2018 is shaping up to be another exceptionally dry year. Elephant Butte Irrigation District has faced this before during its 100 years of operation and they’re ready for it. They have continued to invest in projects to steward land and water resources, providing habitat and contributing to the general health of the ecosystem all while maintaining their primary focus of delivering surface water to their members.

District-wide infrastructure improvements like piping and lining of canals have become even more critical in utilizing limited water resources. EBID delivers water to 90,640 water righted acres through a network of over 264 miles of canals and laterals. To date District employees have installed over 30 miles of pipeline. Piping a canal can increase delivery efficiency from about 50% to 100%, doubling the amount of surface water available for allotment and delivery. On average, this saves about 500 acre-feet of water per mile of piped lateral during a full season.

EBID’s Rincon WHEN (Water Habitat Energy Nexus) project is made possible through a Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) 2014 Water Smart Grant of over $1 million. The cost sharing collaborative effort began in 2016 and is expected to be completed this year. District Engineer Zack Libbin says, “The project has been a success thanks to BOR funding.” Several District members have also donated land and considerable money to help make this undertaking possible.

During the 2015, 2016, and 2017-18 maintenance seasons EBID’s team of engineers and heavy equipment operators completed conversion of almost 2.5 miles of EBID’s Rincon Lateral from an open, earthen, unlined channel to an aluminized 48 inch corrugated steel pipeline with concrete check and diversion boxes. This lateral was strategically targeted because of its location at the tail end of the Rincon Valley. Surface water delivery from the river diversion 33.4 miles and three siphons upstream at Percha Dam is difficult and inefficient, causing system losses that affect the available on-farm water supply for all of EBIDΓÇÖs members. Major operational difficulties and great potential water delivery and efficiency improvements made this an ideal location. Piping will effectively eliminate seepage and evaporation in this stretch, improving delivery timing and head pressure.

Another component of the WHEN project includes the creation of supplemental diversion at Wasteway 18 (WW18) to improve the timing of water deliveries to highly productive farmland in the southern end of the Rincon Valley. Two high flow lift pumps installed at this location lift water out of the wasteway and back into the canal, directly benefiting 2,242 acres.

Farmers in the project service area will also benefit when conveying groundwater via EBID’s system. The virtual elimination of seepage and evaporation reduces the amount of groundwater water they need to pump for a given farm delivery while the reduced friction of the pipeline and raised weirs in the check boxes can improve the delivery and on farm efficiency. This results in water conservation for the entire irrigation district.

As EBID’s engineers have designed them, the corrugated metal pipes have proven to be almost entirely self-cleaning; they are installed with a slope that facilitates sediment movement. Not only do these canal improvements reduce the amount of groundwater water pumped and the energy consumed by that pumping but they also create a win-win by reducing weed problems and maintenance while improving safety.

As part of the Energy Nexus of this project Libbin says, “The District is installing a solar array along the piped lateral within the excess right of way. The photovoltaic panels will help offset between 25 and 50% of the power required – with plans to expand that solar capacity in the future.” This system is estimated to cause a 10% gain in on farm irrigation efficiency; a savings of 2,195 acre feet annually in Farm Delivery Requirement (FDR). In addition, the reduced need to divert the water at Percha Dam for this area and move it through the serpentine main canal system results in an estimated 25% reduction of in conveyance loss, or 3,773 acre feet per year during a full irrigation season.

Improved metering is another component in tightening up the irrigation efficiency for this area. The District has installed solar powered Remote Telemetry Units (RTUs) and uses state of the art Doppler sensors to measure the water. This data is available on the EBID website under the RTU data tab.

EBID crews have also widened the Rincon Drain to capture increased stormwater, improve groundwater drainage and hopefully improve shallow groundwater quality in the area. Rincon Valley farmers Joe Paul and Rosie Lack donated land to collaborate with EBID in dual goals of creating native riparian habitat and improving groundwater drainage. This Habitat Nexus aspect of the project has created a 21.25 acre area of native riparian habitat that includes the newly developed Tonuco Pond. Libbin says, “The District has been de-grubbing a good portion of this land, removing tornillos and salt cedars. We’ll leave the existing willows and come back in with more willows and cottonwoods, desirable vegetation for the habitat.” This spring 3,300 black willow whips were transplanted from Caballo to their new home in a 4.5 acre area of the habitat designed to be suitable for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. Work crews have carefully avoided areas that may be existing habitat. The surrounding areas of diverse habitat are designed to be irrigated naturally. The area is expected to attract a variety of waterfowl as well as a number of other species including deer and javalina that already frequent the area.

Libbin explains that when the Rincon Drain does not flow, due in part to silting issues in the Rio Grande channel, the water in the pond can be moved back to the river using a small unobtrusive ranch style pump. Channel improvements to a nearby arroyo also reduce maintenance requirements and improve the quality and quantity of stormwater discharging back into the Rio Grande. This captured stormwater, which had previously caused flooding problems, will introduce “new water” thereby improving the health of the salty drain and river system by routing the water through the Tonuco Pond, Libbin said.

Future projects combining canal piping and lift pumps like those installed at Wasteway 18 will help the District see a significant reduction in operating losses. Improvements to the tail end of any system also benefits the upstream farmers whose water order delivery will be less tied up by those downstream. In addition, by piping laterals such as this one across the District, canal bank breaches will be virtually eliminated and maintenance will be greatly reduced. Multipurpose projects like the Rincon WHEN deliver on the promise of innovative solutions to meeting the goals of water delivery, stewardship and conservation across Elephant Butte Irrigation District.