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Rio Grande Summer Forecast: ‘Pretty Bad’

Water is being diverted from the Rio Grande at Angostura, north of Bernalillo, for area farmers. But a bad forecast could mean limited supplies by late summer.
Water is being diverted from the Rio Grande at Angostura, north of Bernalillo, for area farmers. But a bad forecast could mean limited supplies by late summer.
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Parts of the Rio Grande through New Mexico could be dry by summer, and farmers and Albuquerque’s municipal water utility may need to reduce their use by August, river managers said Thursday.

“This is a second very critical drought year for us in a row,” said state Engineer Scott Verhines, the state’s top water official.

Verhines’ comments came after a briefing by federal water managers on the runoff forecast and their operational plans for the year. The annual public briefing, held at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, drew an unusually large crowd of more than 30 people from various agencies that must deal with the problems posed by another year of drought.

“If you want the one-word synopsis,” said Ed Kandl of the Bureau of Reclamation, “it’s going to suck pretty bad.”

“The forecast is very sobering, and I think we will have a tough year,” said David Gensler, who manages water supplies for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which provides irrigation water for farmers from Cochiti to Socorro.

The dry year is the result of La Niña, a weather pattern that pushes the storm track to the north. According to the National Weather Service, La Niña is finally gone, but a long-range forecast issued Thursday concluded there is no way to tell whether we can expect the coming summer and fall to be wetter or drier than normal.

The district may need to curtail the amount of water available to farmers, beginning in late August or early September, Gensler said.

Low flows at that time could also force the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility to stop using river water for the metro area’s drinking water supply, switching to groundwater pumping, said utility chief operating officer John Stomp.

Shortfalls on the Rio Grande are likely to cause problems on the lower Rio Grande, where farmers south of Elephant Butte reservoir have become increasingly dependent on groundwater pumping in recent years because of low flows on the river, Verhines said. “We’re concerned about the impact on groundwater resources, particularly in the lower Rio Grande.”

The problem is a lackluster accumulation of winter snow in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, followed by an extremely warm and dry March that saw a big portion of the snowpack disappear without ever making it to the river.

“We think a lot of it just went into the soil or blew away with the wind,” Kandl said.

Water currently in storage in El Vado reservoir on the Chama River should be enough to meet conservancy district farmers’ needs for most of the season, Gensler said. But by late August or early September, the district may have to stop releasing stored water, depending only on the river’s smaller natural flow for irrigation for the rest of the year, Gensler said.

At that point, the conservancy district will be forced to make decisions about whether to continue releasing water for irrigation this year, or hold some back as a hedge against the risk of another dry winter.

Reduced flows could also mean not enough water in the Rio Grande for Albuquerque’s water utility to pull water from the river at its dam near Alameda on the city’s north side, Stomp said.

To the south, Kandl said the Bureau of Reclamation expects reduced flows after mid-June to leave the Rio Grande dry south of Socorro, a common pattern in recent drought years.

Kandl said the Bureau of Reclamation expects the surface of Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico’s largest, to drop 30 feet from current levels by mid-summer, which would be the lowest it has been since 2004.

The lower flows on the river means the bureau will have to make releases from northern New Mexico reservoirs to meet federal requirements to keep the river flowing through the Albuquerque area for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow, said Carolyn Donnelly of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Verhines said the drought forecast offers a reminder that New Mexicans need to do everything they can to conserve water.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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