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Drying Rivers Taking Toll on Farms, Fish

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A dry year on New Mexico’s rivers is starting to bite.

Farm water supplies are dwindling. Albuquerque is shifting to groundwater pumping as the Rio Grande drops. Endangered fish on the Rio Grande and Pecos River are suffering.

Nearly 50 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque is already a waterless sandy bed, and more of the river is likely to dry through the late summer and fall if we don’t get rain soon, according to Rolf Schmidt-Peterson of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

In the Middle Rio Grande Valley, south of Cochiti Dam, ditches are dropping after the irrigation district that supplies farm water ran out of water in upstream storage last weekend.

Farmers will still be able to irrigate with the river’s meager natural flow, which has been just 48 percent of average so far this year. But aside from a small allotment for Native American farmers, all the extra water in storage behind upstream dams to tide farmers over during the dry summer months is now gone.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of mother nature now,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, as he stood beside a centuries-old irrigation canal in Albuquerque’s North Valley on Wednesday morning. As Gensler watched, some of the last of the district’s storage water, held in El Vado Reservoir from winter snows, was making its way through the ditch and into a farmer’s field.

The problems on the state’s rivers represent the accumulated damage of the second dry winter in a row in the mountains to the north.

Water users in the arid Southwest depend on winter snows melting into rivers in spring and early summer and then captured behind upstream dams for late summer and fall use.

This year’s snows were so modest, and natural river flows so low as a result, that the conservancy district had to start releasing supplemental water from El Vado to meet farmers’ early season needs in May, a month earlier than normal, according to Gensler. Those supplemental supplies ran out on Saturday.

June and July natural river flows on the Rio Grande were the lowest they’ve been since 1996, according to Nabil Shafike with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is curtailing its use of river water for metro area businesses and homes. The utility still has storage in upstream reservoirs from previous years’ supplies available for use, but the low natural river flows make it difficult to get it down the Rio Grande and into the utility’s drinking water system, said chief operating officer John Stomp. To make up the supply shortfall, the utility is shifting to its network of groundwater pumps to meet municipal supply, Stomp said.

If things look bad for humans who need water, they look even worse for the state’s fish.

On the Pecos River, federal biologists are preparing a rescue mission for the endangered Pecos bluntnose shiner after a 30-mile stretch of key habitat for the fish went dry, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Carolyn Donnelley.

On the Rio Grande, endangered silvery minnow numbers are near record lows, Lori Robertson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist told state and federal officials at a Thursday morning meeting on river management.

With low flows over the spring and summer, the tiny fish had trouble spawning, and Robertson warned that “we may be at a tipping point” in work to save the troubled fish.

Water managers say that with nearly all their reserves gone, next year could be even worse if the winter of 2012-13 is not a wet one.

El Niño, a climate pattern that shifts the odds toward wetter weather in New Mexico, is currently forming, but early forecasts for the snow-producing northern mountains are not promising.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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