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Rio Grande is facing a ‘tough year

The water is low Thursday in the Rio Grande where N.M. 346 crosses the river near Bosque. Some stretches of the river are already dry. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

In early March, New Mexico water managers were cautiously optimistic about snow levels and spring runoff on the Rio Grande. But by May, federal and regional agencies were predicting that summer river flows would be well below average.

Now at the end of June, agencies are supplementing the river with water from storage to meet demand. Some stretches of the Rio Grande south of Socorro are completely dry.

“When the snow melted, we got less (water) out of it than the numbers had suggested,” said David Gensler, water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “It’s really shaping up to be a bad, bad year on the Rio Grande, probably the worst we’ve experienced here in at least 45 years.”

The June 23, 2020, drought conditions map for New Mexico. The darker colors indicate more severe drought. (National Drought Mitigation Center)

June 25, 2019, drought map. (National Drought Mitigation Center)

The district delivers water to farmers and works with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to manage water supply.

As streamflow predictions became reality, New Mexico agencies began stretching water supplies to meet municipal and farmer demand, and to protect fish.

“Upwards of 95% of water coming out of Cochiti (Lake) is being released from storage,” Gensler said. “If we stopped moving water, the river would be a trickle coming out of Cochiti.”

Much of that water is a result of the San Juan-Chama Project, which diverts Colorado River Basin water to the Rio Grande.

Dry riverbeds in summer are common on the modern Rio Grande, especially south of Socorro. In the dismal water year of 2018, some stretches were dry before May.

“This is a really long river through a very dry part of the country, and a lot of what (people) see out there is a result of active management,” Gensler said. “Many times, if you see water in the Rio Grande on an August day, nature didn’t put it there. Somebody arranged for it to be that way.”

Low flows have already prompted the district to halt some irrigation deliveries.

But more river stretches south of Albuquerque will likely go dry without additional rain, said Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor for Reclamation’s Albuquerque area office.

In 2019, the Bureau of Reclamation didn’t release supplemental water until August. This year, the releases began in April.

“It’s looking like a tough year,” Donnelly said. “It seemed like a decent snowpack, but we haven’t seen it show up in streams and rivers. Some of that snow sublimated. It went directly from snow to vapor and never melted off.”

Reclamation spokeswoman Mary Carlson said this year is becoming somewhat like 2018, when widespread drought and low runoff prompted releases.

“The big difference is that in 2018, there was this good pot of San Juan-Chama water that the city of Albuquerque had, and we were able to lease from them to augment the Middle Rio Grande water supply,” Carlson said.

That $2 million lease agreement in August 2018 between Reclamation and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for 20,000 acre-feet of water “really helped,” Carlson said, but a similar supply isn’t available this year.

New Mexico water agencies entered Article VII storage restrictions in mid-June. Those restrictions take effect when Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs drop below 400,000 acre-feet, and no water may be stored in El Vado or other upstream reservoirs.

Debris that had floated down the river when there was water flowing is piled up at the crossing of the Rio Grande in San Antonio, New Mexico, on Thursday.

Lingering drought

About 75% of New Mexico is experiencing drought, according to data released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

A swath of northern and northeastern New Mexico is experiencing the most extreme drought in the state.

At the June 18 Interstate Stream Commission meeting, State Engineer John D’Antonio Jr. said that if 50% of the state reaches severe drought status, the state’s Drought Task Force will be required to meet. D’Antonio is chairman of the group.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order this month declaring a drought and severe fire conditions throughout the state. The order encouraged local governments to consider fireworks bans.

The dry riverbed of the Rio Grande in San Antonio, New Mexico, on Thursday. Conditions this year are reminiscent of 2018, when large stretches of the river dried up in April. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Silvery minnow

Reclamation and MRGCD, in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are responsible for management activities to promote recovery of the Rio Grande silvery minnow as mandated by the Endangered Species Act.

Donnelly said a late May rainstorm in Albuquerque boosted river flows and created some minnow spawning habitat down the river.

MRGCD can also quickly adjust river flows to mimic spring runoff and create spawning habitat for the endangered minnow.

“It may not be a superhigh peak, but it can sometimes double what (water) was passing the diversion prior to that,” Donnelly said.

Irrigation infrastructure may also be used to divert water to areas of the river where agency biologists think would be most beneficial for the minnow.

MRGCD controls diversions and slows drying in some areas so that Fish and Wildlife can rescue the sensitive fish from the drying river, Gensler said.

Monsoon outlook

Last year’s abundant snowpack and runoff enabled agencies to keep many stretches of the Rio Grande flowing through the summer.

But rain from the 2019 monsoon season was underwhelming, with local forecasters labeling it as “hit or miss” or the “non-soon.”

The 2020 monsoon outlook from the Albuquerque office of the National Weather Service, released in mid-June, indicates that “precipitation in central and northern New Mexico during July, August and September” will most likely “range from near to slightly below 1981-2010 climatological averages.”

In the meantime, water managers are crossing their fingers and hoping for rain.

“Everybody’s looking at every possible source of water to tap to get us through the summer,” Gensler said. “We will pull together to get through this.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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