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Low and dry on the Rio Grande for a new year

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The big bird flew low above the river, out of the morning sun, brown and mottled. It took a bit of staring through the binoculars and then with the naked eye to sort it out as a juvenile bald eagle. It was tailing a great blue heron, also flying north, and after a few minutes I saw a grown-up bald eagle (I presume mom or dad), a bright spot of white in the cottonwoods on the west side of the river.

The Rio Grande was low on New Year’s Day, which does not bode well for our drought, and the first spring forecast is lousy. But last week, the low river left a nice path up the mud flats along the river’s eastern edge. Along the bank in the shade of the tamarisk, the mud was still frozen, which made for easier walking. Flanked by a ribbon of cottonwoods, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re in a wild place in the Albuquerque stretch of the Rio Grande.

Unwilling to get up particularly early in the morning, I’ll never be counted among Albuquerque’s serious birders, but I do love a long, slow walk with binoculars, a camera and my little yellow notebook. I’ve always loved the story in Genesis in which God creates the birds but delegated to Adam the task of picking names: “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.”

So as is my custom, I was out New Year’s Day to start my 2014 list, jotting down the eagles and the herons and the bosque’s lesser bird celebrities. My favorite was a lovely little hermit thrush flitting through the scraggly tamarisk on the river’s east bank.

It’s about fresh starts and taking stock.

Bald eagles winter on central New Mexico’s Rio Grande, but with enduring drought the ecosystem on which they depend is stressed. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Bald eagles winter on central New Mexico’s Rio Grande, but with enduring drought the ecosystem on which they depend is stressed. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge at the Central Avenue Bridge, just upriver from my eagle’s perch, the Rio Grande had been dropping since a few days after Christmas, which explains the mud flats. This is always a shallow time of year on the Rio Grande, but coming off a year that’s been more drought than wet, the river is unusually low right now. And really, as much as I wanted to make a bird list, I was taking stock of the river.

After a few early bursts of snow that allowed ski areas to open early and allowed us all to feel better about things, the storm track has deserted us and the prognosis for New Mexico’s water in the new year has plummeted. On Thursday, federal forecaster Angus Goodbody sent out the preliminary forecast for 2014 runoff, and it does not look good.

It’s important not to make too big a deal of the January forecast. A great deal of weather is yet to happen between now and the spring runoff. Whether we have a wet spring or a dry spring will make all the difference. That is why Goodbody, based at the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Portland, Ore., gives us a range of probabilities rather than a single number.

But the range is not encouraging. The best-case scenario, which by Goodbody’s calculations has a 1 in 10 chance of happening, would put March-July runoff 17 percent above the 1981-2010 average past the crucial San Marcial gauge, at the head of Elephant Butte Reservoir. The most likely scenario is just 51 percent of average. The worst-case scenario is no water at all past San Marcial.

So to sum up, the best we can hope for this year is a Rio Grande flow slightly above average, and the worst to fear is grim.

City residents do not face serious worries if we are really in the midst of a decade-plus “megadrought,” worsened by climate change, as some scientists suggest. Albuquerque has groundwater to fall back on, and while our descendants may curse us if we carelessly use it up, our faucets for now will still run and our golf courses will remain green.

In drought, it’s really our farmers and our nature that suffer. Both the farms and the bosque woods depend on Rio Grande water – either the surface water itself or the shallow groundwater that is, for all practical purposes, part of the river itself. Preliminary numbers from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District suggest the agency’s farmers, spread across nearly 60,000 acres from Cochiti to Socorro County, consumed about three times as much water as customers of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority in 2013.

The bosque itself, its trees and shrubs and the hermit thrushes and eagles that live in its midst consumed about as much as the farmers. With last year’s low river levels, the riverside cottonwoods were clearly stressed, with brown leaves among the green, by the middle of summer. Rains in July and again in September relieved things, and the September floods did some remarkable good when water rose enough to get over the banks and back into the woods in Valencia County. But with growing competition for the valley’s scarce water, the bosque remains at risk.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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