Low runoff, top-of-the-thermometer temperatures and little rainfall have translated into a dismal summer on the Rio Grande, with large river stretches south of Albuquerque already dry.
But water managers are finally breathing a sigh of relief this week.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the state of New Mexico have received permission from neighboring states to access up to 38,000 acre-feet of water, or more than 12 billion gallons, that is currently stored in El Vado Reservoir under the Rio Grande Compact agreement.
The only other time New Mexico was granted emergency use of that stored water was in the 1950s, said Page Pegram, Rio Grande Basin Manager for the Interstate Stream Commission.
“It’s pretty clear without this release the Rio Grande was going to dry up through Albuquerque for sure, maybe even from Bernalillo through Elephant Butte,” Pegram said. “That would have been a bad situation – for endangered species, for farmers and for all the people using the river right now for fun.”
Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer for the irrigation district, said the water will be a “lifesaver” for farmers. Low natural river flows forced the district to stop irrigation deliveries for farmers who use the water bank earlier this summer.
“We’re in one of the highest demand periods for crops, particularly things like corn and chile,” Hamman said. “Alfalfa can weather (drought) a little better, but people could probably lose two or three cuttings this year, and possibly lose full fields of alfalfa, as well. This is one of the last blocks of water in the system. With it, we get another four or five weeks of water, maybe more with a little help from Mother Nature.”
The emergency request to access the water was made through state engineer John D’Antonio, who is also New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact commissioner.
New Mexico must deliver a certain amount of water to Elephant Butte Reservoir every year under the compact. If the state accrues a water debt, they must keep an equivalent amount of water in storage as assurance that the debt will be paid.
All three Rio Grande Compact commissioners from New Mexico, Texas and Colorado had to agree to waive that requirement. Typically, the “debit water” is not released on the river until the late fall, when it can travel to Elephant Butte without major losses from irrigation or evaporation.
The irrigation district’s supply for the Middle Rio Grande valley would have run out by this weekend without Texas and Colorado approving the emergency use, said district water operations manager David Gensler.
“This year, we’ve realized that it’s problematic to have that water sitting there unusable,” Gensler said. “These are dire circumstances. New Mexico has just been baking for the last couple of months.”
But the additional water isn’t a free-for-all. Agencies said they will carefully manage water releases to benefit farmers and protect critical stretches of the river for endangered species, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow. Agencies will hold back on using the stored water if the region receives significant rainfall.
The early release of debit water could impact how much water New Mexico is able to store in El Vado for its own use next year.
Without significant rain and snow, the state could be operating next year under a 100,000 acre-foot debit to downstream users.
“We would still have to do everything we can to get water to Elephant Butte,” Gensler said. “It’s like, we can have the water now, but it comes at a cost later. We don’t waste a drop in these times.”
Texas and New Mexico are in the midst of ongoing litigation about water delivery obligations under the Rio Grande Compact. That makes the granting of the emergency use request all the more unique.
“With Texas, I think they wanted to help out with the situation in New Mexico and they weren’t willing to be vindictive toward the farmers in the middle Rio Grande to benefit farmers in the lower Rio Grande,” Pegram said. “I see it as a good sign that the other states are willing to cooperate. But this is definitely a short-term fix. Long term, we have to come up with some better solutions for how to share the water in the Middle Rio Grande overall. We’re definitely looking into climate change and how that’s impacting the water supply.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.