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Emergency water release a short-term solution

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Rio Grande near the community of Bosque in late June. New Mexico water agencies secured an emergency water release to keep the river wet, but it could put the state in further water debt to downstream users next year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

PHOENIX – Large portions of New Mexico and much of neighboring Arizona face severe or extreme drought conditions.

The latest weekly Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows areas of extreme drought in northern New Mexico near the Colorado border and in New Mexico’s southeastern corner while areas of severe drought are seen in other parts of those regions of the state as well as much of southern and south-central Arizona.

The Drought Monitor said the West has seen temperatures well above normal in the past week and that much of the region has been dry “with only spotty precipitation in places,” though the monsoon provided some relief to eastern New Mexico.

The Drought Monitor map is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New Mexico’s water supply has suffered this year from underwhelming spring runoff and a hot, dry summer.

Agencies have pursued emergency supplies to meet demand for farmers, municipalities and wildlife along the Rio Grande.

But with those actions come consequences for future water obligations, water managers told New Mexico state lawmakers Thursday during a meeting of the Water and Natural Resources Committee.

Conditions are dire in northern New Mexico. Water supply has been cut off for some Rio Chama acequias with water rights dating back to the 1600s.

“Water shortages have always been here, but have been recently complicated in the last decade by climate change and federal storage operations,” said Tim Seaman, president of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association.

In mid-July, New Mexico received permission from Colorado and Texas for an emergency release of 12 billion gallons of stored water from El Vado Reservoir.

State engineer and New Mexico Rio Grande Compact Commissioner John D’Antonio said the Albuquerque stretch of the river would have dried up by now without that water.

But usually that stored water is delivered to Elephant Butte Reservoir after the irrigation season as part of New Mexico’s obligation to downstream users under the Rio Grande Compact.

The emergency use means New Mexico’s water debt could grow to as much as 100,000 acre-feet in 2021.

“The benefits that the middle valley received through this effort far outweigh that debit scenario that we’re going to have to face next year,” D’Antonio said. “Hopefully, we’ll get a healthy monsoon and snowpack.”

Southern New Mexico farmers are “sympathetic” to the water woes of upstream farmers, said Gary Esslinger, treasurer and manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District.

But the EBID board was against the emergency water release, citing concerns of “digging a deeper hole” for southern New Mexico water managers next year.

“We’re already in a dire condition at Elephant Butte,” Esslinger said. “We’re certainly concerned that we’re not going to get any water down here. One way or another, the river’s drying up. It’s just a tough time right now.”

Storage in Elephant Butte Reservoir is currently at about 8.5% of capacity. But EBID estimates the reservoir could be at 50,000 acre-feet, a mere 2.5% of capacity, by Sept. 30.

More than half of the state is experiencing severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Meteorologists have said a La Niña weather pattern is possible this winter, which could mean a drier winter for New Mexico.

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


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