Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Low spring runoff and persistent drought have dried up large stretches of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque and water managers expect the river drying up to get worse.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority will stop diverting drinking water supplies from the Rio Grande to avoid further river depletion. The utility announced Tuesday that it will rely on groundwater supplies all summer.
Water resources division manager Katherine Yuhas said this type of shutoff usually doesn’t happen until August or September. It is also anticipated to last longer than in wetter years.
“A lot of the snow sublimated, and we didn’t get the runoff we had expected,” Yuhas told the Journal. “With these dry conditions, the water authority wants to be off the river.”
The water authority typically diverts and treats millions of gallons of river water each day as part of the San Juan-Chama Project. That project tunnels water from the San Juan River to the Chama River, which empties into the Rio Grande. An adjustable diversion dam, intake structure and treatment plant have also helped the utility shift from using groundwater to using surface water.
A 2019 U.S. Geological Survey report shows aquifer levels in some parts of Albuquerque rose as much as 40 feet from 2008 to 2016.
Yuhas said the city has built up a “savings account” of groundwater supplies, a valuable asset during drought.
“Our Water 2120 Plan anticipates this type of thing,” Yuhas said. “It looks at using surface water as much as possible when available and having groundwater supply as a backup for us. The fact that we need to use some of that ‘savings account’ this year is OK, because we got ready for this.”
The natural recharge system of arroyos helps replenish the aquifer. A water authority well completed earlier this year also injects surface water back into the aquifer for use during lean years.
The utility’s continued smaller releases of water from Abiquiu Reservoir will help keep the Albuquerque stretch of the Rio Grande wet.
No mandatory water use restrictions accompany the utility’s decision to switch to groundwater use.
But the Water by the Numbers program encourages Albuquerque residents to water outdoor landscapes only three times per week during the summer.
“Don’t cut back on washing your hands,” Yuhas said. “But there is an opportunity to save water outdoors.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.