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Rio level to drop to lowest since ’80s

The bosque lines the banks of the Rio Grande as it the river flows through Albuquerque, New Mexico looking north from near the I-40 bridge on Thursday, May 23, 2013. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
The bosque lines the banks of the Rio Grande as it the river flows through Albuquerque, New Mexico looking north from near the I-40 bridge on Thursday, May 23, 2013. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

The Rio Grande through Albuquerque’s bosque will begin drying up by early next week as water stored behind upstream dams runs out.

Water managers hope to marshal their storage reserves to keep a trickle flowing for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Even with that water, the Rio Grande later this summer will drop to its lowest level since at least the 1980s, barring a shift to rainy weather.

“We’re going into some unknown territory,” said Raymond Abeyta of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation during a state-federal Drought Working Group meeting Tuesday morning.

The low flows already are taking their toll on the riverside woods, with data collected by an environmental monitoring program at Bosque School showing cottonwoods already losing leaves, with more stress on the bosque likely as the local water table drops alongside the declining river.

The low river flows are the result of a drought that, by one measure, is the most severe New Mexico has seen in a century, according to Chuck Jones of the National Weather Service’s Albuquerque office.

Total precipitation averaged across the state’s snowy high mountains and low arid deserts for the last 12 months, less than 8 inches, is the lowest since record-keeping began in the late 1800s.

“There are a heck of a lot more people here now than there were a hundred years ago,” Jones said during Tuesday’s drought meeting.

Albuquerque, which draws some of its drinking water from the Rio Grande, began reducing its river diversion Tuesday evening. By July 1, the water utility plans to switch entirely to deep wells beneath the city to supply the metro area’s water, according to John Stomp, the utility’s chief operating officer.

“We’ll be all groundwater,” Stomp said in an interview.

Most Rio Grande farmers from Cochiti to Elephant Butte Reservoir will see substantially reduced supplies as early as next week, said David Gensler, water system manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The district expects to run out of water in its upstream storage reservoir by Sunday, according to Gensler. By early next week, as a result, flows are likely to begin dropping quickly in the Rio Grande. The remaining natural flow, along with some water stored by the federal government to meet Native American communities’ senior water rights, is all that will be available, Gensler said.

The irrigation ditches will not go completely dry. “We do think there will still be some water in the system at various places,” Gensler said. But farmers will see their irrigation water significantly curtailed, he said.

Ironically, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority still has substantial amounts of water in storage. It has a substantial stockpile in Abiquiu Reservoir imported from the San Juan Basin via the San Juan-Chama project in past years, along with a full allocation of San Juan-Chama water this year.

But using that water requires the imported San Juan-Chama water to be mixed with naturally occurring Rio Grande water as it’s moved from reservoir to drinking water plant.

Without any of that natural water, Albuquerque has little choice but to shut down and conserve its San Juan-Chama water for later, Stomp said.

Currently there is no natural water at all making it to Albuquerque, according to Gensler. The only water currently in the river is augmentation supplies being released from storage behind upstream dams.

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