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July was a roller coaster month for the Middle Rio Grande. Even with a major water release from El Vado Reservoir and a burst of monsoon moisture, water managers continue to piece together alternative water sources to prevent further river drying, meet irrigation demand and protect wildlife.
Throughout July, the bird conservation organization Audubon Southwest leased San Juan-Chama Project water to keep the Rio Grande wet for bird habitat. The San Juan-Chama project uses a system of tunnels and reservoirs to direct water from the Colorado River Basin into the Rio Grande.
Paul Tashjian, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon Southwest, said this year’s release of 530 acre-feet of water, or 172 million gallons, targets a stretch of the river from Isleta Pueblo down to San Acacia.
“We’re delivering it through outfalls and irrigation returns used as part of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy,” Tashjian said. “If you ran that water down the river, you’d lose a lot more with seepage. The outfalls efficiently bring that water back to the river.”
The group also works with the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine where more water is needed to protect bird habitat.
Each year, Audubon Southwest leases 250 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water that would otherwise be used in municipalities including Bernalillo, Belen and Los Lunas. As part of the lease, those cities agree to make some of their allocated water available for protecting river habitat.
The conservation group worked with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to keep some of that water stored in Abiquiu Reservoir during the above-average water year of 2019. This year’s releases are a combination of this year’s allocated water and that stored water.
“I think we’ve seen more and more recognition that farms and birds and fish are all relying on the same resource,” Tashjian said. “There’s real interdependence there. Climate change is here, and I think we’re all interested in finding solutions that work for everyone in the long haul.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.