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Farmers’ Water Used By Mistake

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Albuquerque’s water utility inadvertently took farmers’ irrigation water from the Rio Grande for more than a week in late June, using it for city drinking water supplies. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility acknowledged the improper diversions and agreed to pay the farmers back, said John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer.

The problem happened, officials explained, because the Rio Grande is currently so dry that almost all the current flow in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is water imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama project, a series of tunnels beneath the continental divide in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

“If that water was not present, the river would essentially be dry by (the time it reaches) Alameda,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Rio Grande bureau chief for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

The problem reflects the increasing difficulty of managing flows on the river in dry years, with farmers and cities removing water from the river while federal agencies try to maintain minimum flows for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

With no natural flows, the agencies are forced to try to make do with imported water that has been stored in reservoirs along the Chama River for use in dry times. But for the last week in June, river flows were so low that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the water utility were in essence both trying to use the same water.

The problem’s resolution was amicable, said David Gensler, who manages water flows for the conservancy district, which delivers’ the farmers’ water. “We just want to make sure the accounting is fair.”

The competing uses collided last week at the water utility’s Alameda diversion dam, which takes water from the river for use in Albuquerque’s municipal drinking water system.

During normal operations, Albuquerque’s drinking water system takes a portion of the San Juan-Chama water along with some natural Rio Grande flows for use in Albuquerque homes and businesses. With the current drought, the water utility has been trying to maximize its use of river water in the past month to relieve pressure on the regional aquifer, diverting the maximum allowed at the Alameda dam, treating it and pumping it into the metro area’s drinking water reservoirs.

But when the conservancy district raised questions last week, a water accounting by the state’s Interstate Stream Commission concluded that some of the water the utility had been taking at Alameda was really the farmers’ water.

In response, the water utility made up the current shortfall in the river by increasing its release of San Juan-Chama water in storage at Abiquiu Reservoir, Stomp said.

To make good on the previous diversions, the water utility will transfer some of its water in storage upstream to the conservancy district, Stomp said.

That could come in handy, as Gensler and his colleagues try to stretch their dwindling supply of irrigation water through the dry summer.

As of Tuesday, Gensler said the district had enough water in storage to last another 30 days, though that could be extended if summer rains increase river flows and reduce water demands by crops and trees along the river.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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