As drought persists in NM, El Niño may provide relief

The northern Rio Grande is flowing at historic lows this year. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Matt Gontram, owner of New Mexico River Adventures, says the northern Rio Grande and Rio Chama are low, but not low enough to hamper his business.

Although there might not be the usual raging whitewater, and rocks are more visible, Gontram said the historically low levels still allow his company to run its most popular tours.

“Believe it or not, our business is right even with where it was last year,” he said.

Recent rainfall has done little to assuage long-term drought conditions throughout New Mexico.

“We’re still seeing these long-term lingering effects,” National Weather Service senior hydrologist Royce Fontenot said Tuesday in conference call. “The very dry winter and spring have done a lot of damage to the environment.”

Some monitoring stations, Fontenot said, went more than 100 days without measurable precipitation since October, and “it really seemed like someone turned off the tap” to the start of the monsoon season, so they are still at a precipitation deficit.

The worst drought conditions in the country are centered over Colorado, Utah, Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, as well as north-central New Mexico, where precipitation levels are well below normal.

That area remains in exceptional drought.

Conditions have also worsened in the Roswell area, which is now in extreme drought.

The portion of the state in exceptional drought decreased from 15.68 percent last month to 14.54 percent.

Much of the rest of state has improved to severe and moderate drought conditions.

On Wednesday, the board of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority voted to lease 20,000 acre-feet of water from Abiquiu Reservoir to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for $2 million to keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque, largely for the protection of endangered species.

An acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons.

John Stomp, chief operating officer of the water authority, said that without rain and this intervention, the Rio Grande would likely have soon gone dry from the Bernalillo Bridge to Central Avenue.

Last week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it was expecting to run out of storage reserves by the end of this week.

By catching some of the 20,000 acre-feet that leaks from the Rio Grande into their drainage systems – and thanks to Wednesday’s rain – that day may now come on Sunday or Monday.

“We’re in the position now where every little bit helps and it should be a good thing for us,” said David Gensler, water operations manager for the district. “We’ve managed to kick the can down the road a little bit.”

One of the reservoirs the district uses for storage, El Vado, is at just 6 percent of capacity.

As storage runs out, farmers around the state have had to cut back on irrigation.

The lack of rainfall has curtailed grass and hay growth.

“Due to the drought, cattle producers have had to supplement their herd’s forage longer than usual,” Marshal Wilson, a natural resource policy and planning analyst with the state Department of Agriculture, wrote in an email. “Ranchers will likely be assessing different management options that include continued supplementation and the possibility of reducing their cattle inventory.”

According to the most recent New Mexico Crop Progress Report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 60 percent of the state’s rangelands are in very poor to poor conditions, compared with 27 percent at this time last year.

Fontenot indicated there could be hope on the horizon with a possible El Niño pattern moving in this fall and winter, which means above-average precipitation levels.

Fontenot said current models are predicting a 70 percent chance it will move in during the coming months.

But he said it remains to be seen how strong of an El Niño it will be and where the precipitation will fall.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said over the phone Thursday. “The hope going ahead is that we’ll continue to see drought relief going into the fall and winter.”

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