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Drought May Cut Chama Water Deliveries

The federal government is notifying middle Rio Grande water users they may not get a full allocation of water in 2013 because of ongoing drought. (Dean hanson/journal)
The federal government is notifying middle Rio Grande water users they may not get a full allocation of water in 2013 because of ongoing drought. (Dean hanson/journal)
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Copyright © 2012 Albuquerque Journal

The federal government has begun notifying Rio Grande water users that they may not get a full allotment of water from the San Juan-Chama project in 2013 after two years of deep drought sapped reserves.

San Juan-Chama water, imported through a tunnel beneath the Continental Divide, has been a lifeline for Rio Grande water users in recent drought years, especially Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District farmers and the Albuquerque metro area’s government water utility.

But two years of drought have drained the project’s water reserves, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation managers have been informing water agencies that they could see a 20 percent curtailment in water deliveries next year.

“It’s a sign of the drought times, for sure,” said John Stomp, chief operating officer of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The water authority has enough of its own water stockpiled to make it through 2013 with minimal effect, according to Stomp. But irrigators in the Rio Grande Valley between Cochiti and Elephant Butte Reservoir could see a shorter 2013 irrigation season if a good snowpack does not bail out water users.

The bureau made the decision to begin notification this week after looking at how much water is left in storage from previous years, along with forecasts that show little prospect for significant drought relief this winter. Snowpack in the Rio Grande headwaters that feed the San Juan-Chama project is currently just 35 percent of average for this time of year, with almost no snow in the last month, according to the federal government’s Colorado Basin River Forecast Center.

For now, the water agencies and irrigation districts that use San Juan-Chama water will be told they can only count on 80 percent of their normal annual distribution, Mike Hamman, head of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, told the Journal on Tuesday.

If there is sufficient snow this winter, the allocations may rise come spring, according to Hamman. “It’s not necessarily panic time for shortages to the project yet,” Hamman said.

This is the first time since the San Juan-Chama project was completed in the 1970s that it faces the possibility of shortages, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Mary Carlson said Tuesday.

The San Juan-Chama project is a federal effort to bring some of New Mexico’s share of Colorado River Basin water from the less-populated San Juan Basin to the Rio Grande Valley, where most of New Mexico’s residents live. The project diverts water through a series of tunnels, and includes dams on the Chama River to store excess water during wet years for use during dry years.

In all, 13 municipal water agencies and irrigation districts have contracts with the federal government for San Juan-Chama water. Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District are by far the largest.

For the Conservancy District, a 20 percent shortfall in San Juan-Chama water could mean reducing farmers’ irrigation season by as much as a week, according to David Gensler, the district’s water manager. Gensler said the bureau’s decision to begin preparing for possible shortfalls in 2013 was “not unreasonable” given the impacts of back-to-back drought years.

Albuquerque is in a better position than other San Juan-Chama contractors because of the way it has been stockpiling its share of previous years’ allotments of San Juan-Chama water. The Water Utility has been using Abiquiu Reservoir on the Rio Chama and other New Mexico storage reservoirs to save up water for future use. As a result, a shortfall in 2013 will not hurt the Water Utility, Stomp said Tuesday. But it could have impacts down the road, forcing the Water Utility to consume water next year that it had been hoping to save for future use.

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