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‘The impacts are real’

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

An average flow level recorded earlier this week at the Rio Grande at Embudo was the third driest seen for that date in over a century.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, the average daily flow of the river was 170 cubic feet per second.

According to John Fleck, the director of University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, data compiled by the United States Geological Survey show the lowest the Embudo flow has ever been measured on that date was 155 CFS in 2002; the next lowest was 160 CFS in 1902.

The river gauge at Embudo showed very low water levels on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The USGS’ stream gauge at Embudo is the oldest in the country, measuring streamflow in that area between Española and Taos since 1889. August is typically the driest time of the year for the river.

“The impacts are real,” said Fleck of the ongoing drought conditions. “The people downstream who need to use water have less. All of us – Santa Fe, Albuquerque, farmers across the Rio Grande (and) the ecosystem; the plants, the fish, the birds.”

The low flows are a direct result of poor snowpack in the San Juan Mountains upriver in southern Colorado, said both Fleck and Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist in Albuquerque’s National Weather Service office and part of the New Mexico Drought Monitoring Working Group.

According to Fontenot, drought conditions in that area this season mirror those experienced in 2002, when there was also D4 – or “exceptional” – drought conditions.

Fontenot added that the Rio Grande, especially in its northern section that includes Embudo, is a snowmelt-driven river.

“So when you have a very poor winter like this one, you’ll see these low flows,” with the possibility of just “spikes and bumps” with heavy rainfall, said Fontenot. Despite the big monsoon storms in Santa Fe, Fleck said there hasn’t been enough heavy rain up to the north to make a substantial impact.

Heavy farming in the San Luis Valley at the Rio Grande’s head also means less water in the river, noted Fleck, who added that the low discharge is also an effect of climate change.

“You get a bad snowpack, but also because the temperatures are so warm, (there is) increased evaporation or increased use by plants,” he said. “For a given amount of snow, we get less water in our rivers. This is climate change.”

Fontenot, though, says the main driver of 2018’s dryness is this past winter’s La Niña, the ocean-atmosphere phenomenon which he noted typically results in warm and dryer winters in New Mexico, rather than climate change.

Dry conditions on the northern stretch of the river affect the area’s outdoor recreation community, according to Steve Harris, a rafting guide and river conservationist whose company, Far Flung Adventures, has been riding the Rio Grande since 1978.

Though the overall averages may not be at the levels from ultra-dry 2002, he estimated that over the past several weeks, there have been moments where it was “lower than any moment” 16 years ago.

“(Other years), you get a nice ordinary spring runoff, and you get big waves and people are putting on wetsuits and stuff,” he said. “This year, they’re dodging rocks (and) getting stuck on rocks.”

Despite low flows, he said the number of rafters was up compared to last year, which Harris credited to a post-recession economy and more expendable income for potential rafters.

But Harris said rafting companies like his may see drops in their bottom lines because lower water levels mean using smaller boats. When the levels are high, 14-15-foot boats that carry an average of six to seven people can be used. But with narrower areas among the river rocks to maneuver, Harris is sending out 11-to-12-foot boats that can hold about four riders.

“If you used to make a dime and now you make a nickel (per boat), even though you run more boats, you’re not going to realize a profit,” said Harris. “We’ll see. It’s too early to look at those types of economics.”

In farms throughout the surrounding Embudo Valley, acequias that irrigate local farms get their water from the Rio Embudo, or small tributaries from that river, rather than the Rio Grande itself, according to Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association.

Users of acequias right on the Rio Grande are often envied by those who draw water from other streams, but now the Rio Grande ditches are “feeling the shortage, too,” Garcia said.

“It’s such a dry year,” she said. “Nobody can point to a year it’s been drier.”

What’s important to pay attention to now, Fontenot said, is this upcoming winter’s snowpack.

New Mexico is expected to have an El Niño season, which he said typically brings “normal to above normal” precipitation, or higher snowpack levels.

“Right now, the outlook for the winter looks good,” said Fontenot. “How that is going to shape up, we’ll see.”