CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) – New Mexico water managers are pumping water from state reservoirs into the Pecos River to account for losses during a devastating drought.

The move was meant to augment supplies for users and water rights holders along the river, while maintaining deliveries to Texas required as part of a 2003 settlement, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

During a recent meeting, Interstate Stream Commission Pecos River Bureau Chief Hannah Riseley-White said the pumping was needed to account for increasingly scarce freshwater supplies in southeastern New Mexico.

The latest map released Wednesday shows about half of the state is dealing with exceptional drought – the highest designation under which fire danger increases, no surface water is available for agriculture and large rivers run dry. That marks a significant change since the previous week.

Most of Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties are in that category, while drought in the rest of the state was classified as either severe or extreme.

Riseley-White said the pumping, which began this fall from two wells owned by the state, was exclusively to augment water for the Carlsbad Irrigation District – the most senior water rights holder on the river – as required by state law when supplies are low.

Per the settlement between the state and the irrigation district, if the state forecasts that the district’s March water supplies will be less than 50,000 acre-feet, it must use the wells to make up the difference. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and is enough to serve one to two average households a year.

The November forecast showed the supplies would likely be below 45,000 acre-feet. Riseley-White said it could be even lower in early spring if drought conditions persist through the winter.

“The basin is really dry,” Riseley-White said. “We’re thinking we could be significantly short from that target come March 1.”

The augmentation does not guarantee the irrigation district a certain amount of water. Riseley-Smith said it helps ensure the district does not make a priority call, which would take water rights from junior users to make up for the district’s losses.

Water from the augmentation wells is pumped to the reservoir at Brantley Lake, where it is diverted into the Pecos River and delivered to farmers within the district.

The Seven Rivers well near Brantley Lake will account for most of the augmentation and pumping. More water will also be sent from a well site at Lake Arthur about 35 miles (56 kilometers) upstream in Chaves County.

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