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Water shortages for New Mexico farmers, fish

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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Much of the snowpack in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is already gone, but it seems to be blowing away in the wind rather than melting into the state’s streams and rivers. That has water managers scrambling to cope with the state’s fourth consecutive very dry year.

“It’s been warm and windy,” said federal snow surveyor Wayne Sleep, “and as you know, that’s the enemy of snowpack in arid states.”

Spring runoff on the Rio Grande in central New Mexico is forecast to be just 31 percent of the long-term average, according to a preliminary forecast from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, based on Sleep’s surveys.

“I’ve been trying to maintain optimism, but I’m finding it harder and harder to be that way,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers farm water to some 60,000 acres along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico.

Gensler is preparing his users for the possibility that farms with lower-priority water rights will see their water curtailed later this month.

To the south, farmers in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District will again have to get by on far less water this year. Irrigation season for the valley’s chiles and pecans usually starts by March, but will not begin until late May at the earliest, said Phil King, the district’s water management advisor. That leaves farmers with a choice of changing which crops they plant, leaving land out of production or pumping more-expensive, lower-quality groundwater to make up for the shortfall.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, one of two federal agencies with major Rio Grande water management responsibilities, is developing plans to try to keep enough water in the river to keep endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows alive, said Mike Hamman, head of the agency’s Albuquerque office.

That includes enough water stored behind upstream dams for a brief pulse of extra water in late April or early May, for as long as five days, to help the little fish spawn.

Hamman acknowledged that there remains a risk that the river through Albuquerque will drop below minimum levels set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act to meet the needs of the minnow.

A fourth consecutive dry year and low flows in the river are bad news for the minnow, with populations propped up now primarily by fish raised in hatcheries, said Jennifer Pelz of WildEarth Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group. “This is the worst-case scenario,” Pelz said.

WildEarth Guardians has filed notices of intent to sue the state of Colorado and three federal agencies – the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers – over the minnow. Asked Wednesday whether the organization intends to file suit this year, Pelz said, “Yes.”

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