Just off the Rio Grande River, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., sits Santo Domingo Pueblo, a community surrounded by fields of alfalfa, oats and Sudan grass for horses and cattle, and small gardens filled with corn and green chili peppers.
But this green idyll is in danger of drying out. Over the past few years, New Mexico has been struggling through one of the worst droughts in recorded history. Little rain and a dwindling river have threatened many of the Pueblo’s fields and gardens.
After partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, Pueblo residents have found a way to grow more using less water and keeping their fields and gardens healthy.
Pueblo residents worked with NRCS to save water by improving soil health through conservation practices such as rotating crops and planting cover crops. Healthy soil retains more moisture, allowing for less water to be applied during irrigation.
They also installed an efficient underground water irrigation system to replace some of the aging earthen irrigation ditches to 50 fields that stretched across more than 200 acres.
The new watering system and conservation practices have made all the difference. The once-parched fields of the Pueblo are flourishing—a notable feat even in non-drought years. And now fields that used to take two days to irrigate can be watered in just 4 hours.
In late June, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the Pueblo to see its successes first hand. Vilsack said he hopes that other communities and tribes will look to Santo Domingo Pueblo’s improvements as a possible solution for drought-affected agricultural operations across the west.
The tribe received financial assistance from NRCS through USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative. The national initiative addresses high-priority funding and technical assistance needs in rural communities in 16 states, including New Mexico, with a special emphasis on historically underserved communities and producers in counties with persistent poverty.
Because of their water and time savings, Pueblo residents are now looking to continue upgrading the remaining earthen irrigation systems in order to be able to feed the entire community with locally grown foods.