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Drought lingers across New Mexico

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The Rio Grande is again looking puny where it crosses through Albuquerque as persistent drought continues to afflict the Southwest.

Flows on Thursday afternoon were at 133 cubic feet per second, below the historical Sept. 27 average of 410 cubic feet per second.

But water groups around the state have pulled together to keep it flowing, at least until the end of the water year.

“The river’s going to be pretty stable the way it is right now,” said David Gensler, a hydrologist with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “They have enough, I believe, to get through the end of October, if need be.”

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, said natural flows of the Rio Grande dried up in July, and it’s still flowing only because of water from the San Juan-Chama Project, which allows for the transport of Colorado River Basin water to supplement the Rio Grande.

“It’s a reminder of how important this project is for New Mexico’s water supply,” Fleck said.

The Rio Grande is in dire straits throughout its run from Colorado through New Mexico, Fleck said.

Levels at Embudo, in north-central New Mexico, have reached record lows this year.

In south-central New Mexico, near Truth or Consequences, Elephant Butte Reservoir is at just 3 percent capacity.

Other rivers in the state are also struggling.

The Animas River at Farmington, an area in exceptional drought, is just above zero flow – the lowest level in the area station’s history.

Eric Frey, sport fish program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, said the agency investigated 18 fish die-offs this year.

“In a ‘normal’ year, we typically investigate about 8 to 10 reports of fish kills/die-offs,” Frey wrote in an email.

Frey said this year’s die-offs due to low water levels have occurred in the Chama, Brazos, Mora and Pecos rivers, as well as various lakes and ponds around the state.

During a conference call Tuesday on drought conditions in New Mexico, Royce Fontenot, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said precipitation has helped ease some drought in the eastern part of the state since last month.

But just 0.22 percent of the state is drought-free. The exceptional drought area in the northwestern corner of the state showed a little growth, with more than 15 percent of the state now in the worst class of drought.

With most of the state’s reservoirs pushed to their limits to cover damage done by last winter’s dismal snowpack, another bad snow year would leave water users without a fallback next year, Gensler said.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t be going into winter like this, but I think this is where we’re going to start winter,” Fontenot said.

Fontenot said there’s a 65 to 70 percent chance of an El Niño weather pattern moving in during the coming months, which typically brings more precipitation.

But even if El Niño does arrive, it isn’t certain which areas it will affect and how much precipitation it’ll bring.

“It’s not a blanket term anymore,” said Chris Romero, a snow survey hydrological technician with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Albuquerque. “We had an El Niño forecast here two years ago, and it was great for about two months until the jet stream moved farther north and winter kind of turned off.”