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New Mexico Science

Science, climate, weather and water from a New Mexico perspective

The first zero-release April in Elephant Butte history

Rio Grande, Hatch NM. April 29 2013. (John Fleck/Journal)
Rio Grande, Hatch NM. April 29 2013. (John Fleck/Journal)
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It seems I will never run out of ways of saying the current drought is historic. Here’s one more measure: this is the first year in the history of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project, nearly a century, that no water was released from Elephant Butte Reservoir during the month of April.

Drought is a complicated thing, involving more than simply a year of less rain and snow. Depending on where you are and the role of water in your life, the severity of drought accumulates over multiple years. Warmer temperatures, which we’ve had in recent years, can add to the problem. And water demand is a crucial element. A drought that once would have been modest will have severe effects if you’ve come to depend on more water than in the past.

All that is summed up in Elephant Butte Reservoir, in south-central New Mexico astride the Rio Grande near the town of Truth or Consequences. The reservoir is extremely low, the result of a series of dry years and continued downstream water demand. This year’s inflow is pathetic, with almost no fresh water to top up the tank, the result primarily of a lousy snowpack and dry conditions upstream.

After walking in the bed of the Rio Grande on Monday near Hatch to get some pictures for the paper, I went looking for some data to show how often in history it has been this dry this late. It’s a heavily managed system down there. Essentially the only water flowing down the Rio Grande at Hatch, bar the occasional storm inflow, is water released from Elephant Butte. And according to USGS gauge records, this is the first time since Elephant Butte operations began in 1916 that no water was released from the Butte in April. I could not believe this could be correct, and waited a day to track down Phil King down at New Mexico State, the expert in such things, to make sure I was reading the table correctly.

I was. My walk in the bed of the Rio Grande documented a bit of history.

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