Enchanting People of New Mexico - Elephant Butte Dam Project

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Episode 3 - Elephant Butte Dam Project

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is brought to you from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical Podcasts and on Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

Normally on Wednesdays we talk about one person, but I want to talk about thousands of people who working together made our area better. And then I will note many people who operate this benefit for us today and in the years to come. There is something that we love in the area that people will say, my grandfather worked on that, or maybe my great grandfather worked on that.

Last week when I was talking about Dr. Fabian Garcia, I said that his contributions in plant research was enhanced by the large amount of water that was available to commercial farmers when Elephant Butte Dam was constructed. The large fields of plants and trees that make up the agricultural crops of Pecans, Chile, Onions, cotton and many other crops, they are only here because there was and is enough water to support commercial crops. That is the blessing that Elephant Butte Dam brought. But like most of our benefits, it didn’t happen by accident.

Now I have several books about the construction of the Dam and even have a screenplay called Hero’s Choice which is fiction, not a documentary. But I must commend the writing of Sherry Fletcher and Cindy Carpenter on a book, Images of America: Elephant Butte Dam. I get lost in the wonderful pictures and descriptions. I highly recommend this book.

While the Dam has been in operation over a hundred years, we should view its construction in several phases rather than one day people said, let there be the world largest dam and poof, there it was. Nothing of the kind. It represents an incredible amount of work done by thousands of engineers, workers and others so that one day the entire complicated Dam project was completely finished, though that was decades later in the 1950s. Again, think of phases.

In the 1880 there was quite a bit of dialog about how much a flood control and irrigation water dam was need on the Rio Grande in Southern New Mexico. The Rio Grande is the 4th longest river in North America running about 1900 miles from the San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado to the gulf of Mexico. It provides irrigation water to Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and several states in Mexico. There is a treaty that divides the water. More of that in a moment.

Not in order of importance let me mention the benefits of Elephant Butte Dam: first, water. The people in towns and certainly all crops, especially commercial field crops need lots of water. 2nd, flood control since before the dam the flood waters came in a rush and were at time quite devastating. 3rd, recreation since the lake is a wonderful boating area. 4th, fishing, which is due partly to a fish hatchery built in the 1930 and lastly. 5th, electricity when there is enough water which was built also in the 1930s. Oh, a 6th, also silt control for the dirt in the flood waters.

The absolutely hardest part was the start which used lots of paper for applications and reports before the Dam could be sited where it is and construction could start. The Rio Grande Project which informally started in the 1890s was truly started in 1906. I could talk for hours about the intrigue and political maneuvering to build the dam. If that is your fancy, there are several good books including the Fletcher and Carpenter book which again I highly recommend.

First, they had to select where? Initially it was set for where it is now but there was a push to build it internationally at El Paso and Juarez Mexico with the actual dam to be in the area of the former ASARCO plant. That would have flooded many miles of Southern Dona Ana County instead of it being rich farmland. Ultimately after lots of politics and court cases, the site chosen was right where it is. It was called Engle Dam initially and later politicians named it the Woodrow Wilson Dam but then over the years it became and is Elephant Butte Dam.

The first thing that had to be done is to construct a bypass for the Rio Grande water so that they could do the concrete work on the 300-foot tall by 1674 foot wide concreate dam which at the time of construction was the world’s largest manmade irrigation dam. They used about 620 thousand cubic yards of concrete. But remember that it was in phases so first in 1911 the Rio Grande had to be diverted around the project. At the peak of construction there was more than 3500 people working on the project which phase one was officially completed in 1917. After the Concrete got high enough in 1915 the Dam started holding the water which at the top was 2-million-acre feet. That was phase one with the dam holding and releasing water directly back into the Rio Grande though there was smaller water control dams below such as the Percha Dam built in 1917 to spread the water out to the areas that were going to use it agriculturally.

After lots of planning and again political action in the 1930s the Electrification Part of the Dam was completed along with Caballo Dam about 25 miles downstream which meant that when the water was not needed for irrigation the lake water could still be discharged through the hydroelectric powerplant installed that generates 28 megawatts of electricity. Since it flowed into Caballo Dam, then the water was not lost down the Rio Grande and could be used for agricultural purposes as needed. There was a boating and fishing benefit at Caballo Dam.

Now during that time from the Dam being completed in 1917 to when Caballo Dam, an earthen dam was completed in 1938 there was a major project to build the irrigation system so that farmers could use the water effectively and efficiently. All through that time the small acacias that you see taking water here and there was constructed so that the fields could have water and the individual homeowners also could have irrigation water.

Most of the water that was and is stored in Elephant Butte Dam is from winter snowpacks though there was and is always some from the summer rains. One value of the Dam was that it caught the sediment of the river which you see after a rain comes down an arroyo.

The final cost of the first phase of the Dam was about $154 million of today’s dollars. I don’t have a number for the work in the 1930s to add Caballo Dam and the hydroelectric work along with lots of work on the entire area building roads and tourist facilities. If you look closely, though, up at the Elephant Butte Damsite, you see the letters CCC on some of the work. That was the Civilian Conservation Corps, a 1930s work-relief program that put millions of young men to work. It was a nine-year program that ended at the start of the second world war.

Around the Elephant Butte Dam facilities, you will see the CCC stamped on the concrete. It had one other unintended consequence: most of the unemployed men were in the eastern part of the United States and most of the work camps were in the west. Over a number of years as I interviewed people in the 1970s, I had many men tell me they came to New Mexico to work for the CCC, fell in love with our state and decided to live here the rest of their lives. Others told me that they went back somewhere east and realized they would only be happy in New Mexico. Not a few of them mentioned besides blue skies and friendly people they really missed the absolute enjoyment of Chile on their food which wasn’t available back east. I know that feeling since in 1987 I moved to the Ventura California area for a job and at that time there was no place to get Hatch Green Chile so I came home for good to the blue skies and Chile in 1989.

At this time of celebrating the construction of Elephant Butte Dam and the value of having abundant amounts of water for agriculture, plus we share the total water by treaty with Texas and Mexico. But getting the water in the dam to the fields and even homes again does not happen by accident. There are many people who tend to the water channels in our area and above and below our area. We should give a thanks to them who we rarely see and know little about other than the water gets where it needs to be. One of these days I will spotlight Gary Esslinger, the manager of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District for 34 years who has 80 employees getting the water to where it needs to go.

Speaking of using the water in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, in August at The Fresh Chile Company, the sponsor of these podcasts, there will be 2023 Big Jim Hatch Green Chile available in a jar. It is a special reserve release of the Hatch Green Chile varietal Big Jim in a 16-ounce jar. Varietal means that this product will only be made with Big Jim Chile, which is sweet and has a medium heat level. Big Jim is very popular in New Mexico restaurants & homes. The harvest of the Big Jim crop is anticipated to be in the middle of August 2023, with the first product available a few weeks later. Customers can preorder this product now at The Fresh Chile Company website: freshchileco.com

Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. These Podcasts are sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get the Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical Podcasts and on Wednesdays, today we celebrate someone important to our area.

Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com

The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise.

Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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