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$2M deal aims to keep Rio Grande flowing in New Mexico

Silt and other debris flow down the Rio Grande following a night of rain in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. The Rio Grande’s flows have been historically low, prompting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to lease water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to ensure the river does not go dry through the Albuquerque stretch. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

Federal water managers and a major utility have reached a $2 million agreement that aims to keep one of North America’s longest rivers from going dry in the stretch that runs through Albuquerque.

The lease approved late Wednesday by board members of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority will provide the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation with additional water to preserve the flow of the Rio Grande.

Santa Fe also is helping to mitigate losses to the river further north.

The lease agreement comes as the state grapples with an ongoing severe drought. Like the rest of the American Southwest, a dismal winter resulted in little snowpack and historically low spring runoff and summer rains have been spotty at best.

Irrigation managers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley warned this week that within days they will exhaust the last of their stored water, leaving the river to its meager natural flows.

The lease agreement gives federal managers up to 20,000 acre-feet to supplement the river with the goal of keeping it wet at least through October. An acre-foot is enough to supply a typical U.S. household for a year.

Depending on conditions, water not used this year can be released in 2019 if needed and the federal government will make payments to the utility only for whatever water ends up being released.

The agreement comes at a critical time, officials said.

“As water supplies run low in northern reservoirs, it’s important for the public to understand that this agreement is essentially what’s keeping water flowing in the Albuquerque reach of the Rio Grande,” said Albuquerque city councilor and water board chair Trudy Jones.

Federal officials said they plan to seek more funding next year for continued leasing.

The latest map shows drought lessened its grip on New Mexico and much of the West over the last week. Still, more than one-third of New Mexico is dealing with the worst categories of drought, including a large swath of the Four Corners region where the state borders Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

One of North America’s longest rivers, the Rio Grande was running thick Thursday in the Albuquerque area with silt and other debris following a night of rain.

Despite short-term relief for some areas thanks to the monsoon season, forecasters have said it will take more than a single robust rainy season to erase the water deficit.

About 30 miles of the Rio Grande below Isleta Pueblo and north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge were transformed into a sandy wash earlier this spring, prompting the rescue of endangered silvery minnow.

Officials say the lease will help meet endangered species requirements.

John Stomp, the water utility’s chief operating officer, said the utility has been able to lease water to the federal government, the local irrigation district and others because planning and conservation over the decades has built up reserves.

The utility is using a 100-year plan to chart potential supply and demand trends, and Stomp said residents are on the right track as use has gone down despite a 50 percent increase in customers. The aquifer also has been rising thanks to conservation and the shift to surface water resources.

While the city and county are expecting as much as a 30 percent reduction in the water they get from the San Juan-Chama diversion project decades into the future, Stomp said planned reuse and recharge projects, among other things, are expected to fill the gaps.

As of early August, residents used 253 million gallons (958 million liters) less than they had as of the same time last year. Officials said the goal is to reduce use to 110 gallons (416 liters) per person per day to further stretch supplies in the future.