Fall in New Mexico is inseparable from the smell of roasting chile wafting from parking lots and farmers markets. It's a ritual Chencho Ochoa has proudly taken part in for decades as a traditional chile farmer in Chimayo.

But this year, he worries, he might not have the usual abundance to offer. Standing behind the Chencho's Famous Chimayo Chile booth at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, he tells SFR the absence of summer monsoons has taken a toll.

At the end of August, water Ochoa depends on was cut off abruptly almost two months before the end of the fall growing season, leaving his chile harvest half-ripened in the field. He says the brief rain that accompanied the sudden cold spell last week saved his crop, though he will need another rainfall to make it to the end of October.

Chencho Ochoa of Chencho’s Famous Chimayo Chile shows off his harvest.
Chencho Ochoa of Chencho’s Famous Chimayo Chile shows off his harvest. | Leah Cantor

The US Department of Agriculture earlier this month reported 29.3% of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions. It's been only two years since the last severe drought, and according to the EPA, climate change will likely cause hotter, drier summers in the future.

Low snowpack, drought, extreme heat, fire and COVID-19 compounded the challenges facing farmers this season and spurred growers to think about how these traditional agricultural communities can adapt to future change.

In the hills above Chimayo, the Santa Cruz Lake reservoir holds the water that supplies over 100 acequias in the valley below.

In early spring of a typical year, runoff from mountain snowpack fills the reservoir to the brim and flows into the acequias and river below the dam. By July, the runoff slows and the Santa Cruz Irrigation District commissioners reduce flows and slowly ration water until the end of October. During these months, summer monsoons add to the reservoir and keep farmers' fields lush.

But this year was different.

This summer, the lack of snowpack meant water flows into the reservoir ended early, says Ron Gallegos, the commission chairman.

On a number of particularly hot days with more evaporation than expected the water didn't make it to final acequia parciantes in La Mesilla, so dam tenders released more water than usual, contributing to its early decline.

When the summer monsoons didn't come, there was no water to replenish what had already been used. Then, choppers came with buckets and pulled water from the reservoir to help put out the Medio Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest just south of Santa Cruz Lake.

By mid-August reservoir levels were too low to sustain the pressure needed to release water from the dam and farmers were told the water would be shut off early.

Gallegos says the district gave ample notice to mayordomos—the elected leaders of the individual acequias—and rationed water from three days to two before shutting it off. Yet many parciantes in the district tell SFR the shutoff came unexpectedly.

Don Bustos of Santa Cruz Farms tells SFR he wasn't notified until two weeks beforehand, throwing his operation into chaos. Yet, he does not blame the managers for the confusion. Instead, he blames COVID-19.

In past summers, he says, monthly commission meetings were packed by farmers whose input influenced decisions about water rations, and who kept themselves and their neighbors well informed.

"This year because of the coronavirus, there was no community input,says Bustos.

Gallegos agrees COVID-19 created a communication problem, noting the district held public meetings on Zoom that were poorly attended.

Bustos says this experience and the knowledge that climate change will likely exacerbate drought patterns in future years calls for growers to formalize their participation into a kind of regional growers advisory council to help navigate periods of scarcity and ensuing conflicts.

Gallegos is also trying to surmount existing challenges and prepare for a drier future.

In 2017, the US Bureau of Land Management spent $1.8 million to remove built-up silt displacing almost a third of the reservoir's capacity. The effort was only marginally successful.

Gallegos says the district has repeatedly applied for state and federal agencies to pay for another project to increase capacity by increasing the height of the dam. He says the project is "shovel ready," but funding has not materialized.

A third project, though, holds promise. The district was awarded $60,000 in capital outlay funds by the New Mexico Legislature in January 2020 to upgrade the dam's electrical systems. Gallegos says many components have not been updated since the 1920s when the dam was built.

"We've been trying to modernize for several years, and this year, we're finally going to bring the dam into the 21st century," says Gallegos. "We hope it will make it much easier to provide farmers with enough water to last for a good season in the future."