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Strong runoff to boost Rio Grande tourism

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Will Graves, Daisy Graves, Robert Bell and rafting instructor John Adams, all with the Santa Fe County Fire Department, rafted in May 2017 through the rapid known as Toilet Bowl on the Rio Grande Racecourse on their day off. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

RIO GRANDE DEL NORTE NATIONAL MONUMENT — Rafting and angler guides are predicting a good season for Rio Grande tourism in New Mexico thanks to strong runoff generated by a good snowmelt this year.

A healthy snow patch this winter is feeding the Rio Grande with much-needed water after long dry spells stemming from drought.

This year, the National Weather Service in Albuquerque predicts runoff to be at least 148% of normal through June.

Water levels were 50% of normal in 2018. Parts of rivers were bone dry or only inches high. Fish — such as trout in the Pecos River — died off and long sandbars formed along once-wet areas.

“Everybody says it’s gonna be a huge year and I think they’re right,” said Britt Runyon of Dixon, New Mexico-based New Wave Rafting.

Other rafting guides in Northern New Mexico agree. So do anglers, who expect a good summer of fishing even though the Rio Grande is still moving too high and fast for them to start casting their lines.

“It’s a momentary restoration of the process that made the river what it is,” said Steve Harris, a river guide and conservationist who oversees the nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration project, designed to keep the river healthy.

“It’s good,” Harris added, “but it’s not the solution to our drought.”

Those who raft, fish, kayak or depend on the river for irrigating crops understand that. But for them, the ample spring runoff is nevertheless a blessing.

In addition to tourism, strong runoff is predicted to help the ecosystem around the river and its banks.

University of New Mexico biology researcher Rebecca Bixby said the increased flow will help the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow lay eggs and spawn.

With some overbanking, or flooding, the river also will provide water to the cottonwood trees lining the shores and replenish the groundwater in the bosque adjacent to the Rio Grande.

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