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Santo Domingo Pueblo tackles drought with NRCS help

StrikeForce Landing

By Mark Smith

A healthy alfalfa field in the Santo Domingo Pueblo as a result of improved soil health and a new ir

A healthy alfalfa field in the Santo Domingo Pueblo as a result of improved soil health and a new irrigation system.

Residents of the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico worked with NRCS to run an efficient underground

Residents of the Santo Domingo Pueblo in New Mexico worked with NRCS to run an efficient underground irrigation pipeline.

Just off the Rio Grande River sits Santo Domingo Pueblo, a community in New Mexico surrounded by a sea of green -- fields of alfalfa, oats and Sudan grass and small gardens to grow fresh vegetables.

But the community is in danger of drying out. During the past few years, New Mexico has struggled through one of our nation’s worst droughts. Little rain and a dwindling river have threatened many of the pueblo’s fields and gardens.

“Many of the fields were in fallow because there wasn’t enough water because of the shortage,” said Jonathan Garcia, Water Resources Manager for the pueblo.

After partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, pueblo residents found a way to grow more using less water, keeping their fields and gardens healthy.

The tribe received financial assistance from NRCS through USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity. The national initiative addresses high-priority funding and technical assistance needs in rural communities in 20 states, including New Mexico, with a special emphasis on historically underserved communities and producers in counties with persistent poverty.

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 pueblo is applying science to the field hand-in-hand with their traditional methods, and it’s working,” said Jean Foster, NRCS New Mexico soil conservation technician who worked extensively on the project.

The new watering system and conservation practices have made all the difference. Foster said 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 four hours.

“We’re now studying another area just south of our village to consider putting in a similar irrigation system for about 300 more acres,” said Garcia. “On a scale of 1 to 10, the project’s success has been an 11.”

Much of the work through StrikeForce focuses on encouraging efficient use of water in agricultural operations.

For example, in Arkansas, StrikeForce helped Mildred Griggs equip her seasonal high tunnel with irrigation, which keep plants growing strong with the precise amount of water. Griggs uses micro-irrigation to drop water at the base of the plants. The results of this work lead to fresh, tasty produce, Griggs said.

“It was really bragging rights,” she said. “We had the best salad green mix in the region. I’m certain that we would not have had the seasonal high tunnel had it not been for StrikeForce and the meetings that were arranged from different representatives of USDA agencies through the state.”

And in Arizona, the initiative helped Alfredo and Sabrina Zamora replace four outdated pivot irrigation systems with new upgraded ones on their cropland. The new pivot irrigation lines are 10 percent more efficient in use of water and electricity and should last up to 30 years saving water and money.

“It was very hard for somebody like me with very little experience and no money to go into a government office and ask for things,” Alfredo Zamora, said. “We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years. I’d say in that I feel completely comfortable going in there now.”

StrikeForce is creating conservation opportunities in rural communities and tribes across the nation. Learn more.