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Irrigating the Rio Grande

JARALES – There’s a great line about New Mexico’s central river, often attributed to Will Rogers: “The Rio Grande is the only river I ever saw that needed irrigation.”

Whether Rogers said it or not (and there is some question), it is no longer a joke.

“We’re irrigating the Rio Grande,” water manager David Gensler said as he watched a small flow off the Sabinal canal in southern Valencia County, where workers have cleared an old ditch and diverted a bit of the precious liquid into the otherwise largely dry bed of the Rio Grande.

The water pushed down the little channel Friday morning, looping around a big Goodding’s willow, through the resuscitated ditch’s outfall and into a nearly dry stretch of river. It’s part of a last-gasp effort by the river’s managers to maintain a few patches of natural habitat as the Rio Grande heads into its driest summer in decades.

Even in the summer heat of what is, by some measures, the driest year in recorded New Mexico history, a resident of Albuquerque could be forgiven for not noticing the drought. Headlines notwithstanding, the municipal taps still run and the river through the midst of town, propped up by water saved in previous years behind upstream dams, has maintained a healthy-looking flow.

That is about to change.

Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, has been one of the key people doing the propping, nursing his limited storage supplies to try to stretch out the season as long as possible for the district’s farmers.

“The natural flow, what’s produced in the basin high in the mountains, is insufficient to meet all the demands on the river,” Gensler said last week as we stood on the river’s west bank, just downstream from the Sabinal outfall.

The water flowing through Albuquerque – the Rio Grande you see from the metro area’s bridges – has for the past few months been largely the conservancy district’s, keeping the river here wet on its way to farmers to our south. That water is diverted at the northern edge of Isleta Pueblo. Past that, the river is already rapidly drying out.

At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the conservancy district used up the last of its water stored behind El Vado Reservoir in northern New Mexico, and the flow on the Rio Chama plummeted.

Once the last pulse of conservancy district irrigation water flows through Albuquerque, the river here will begin dropping fast, too. You might notice it as soon as your Wednesday morning commute if you drive across one of the metro area’s Rio Grande bridges.

By the end of the week, with no conservancy district farm water to prop up Albuquerque flows, only a small amount of water managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will be keeping the Rio Grande wet through Albuquerque – water released from upstream dams to maintain a fragment of habitat for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

What happens next depends on how much summer rain we get, but Albuquerque could very quickly see the Rio Grande at its lowest since the 1970s.

The plan is to keep a stretch of low but flowing water through Albuquerque to preserve a refuge for the silvery minnow, along with the Sabinal outfall and three other spots where the Bureau of Recreation will dispatch trickles of water from conservancy district drains to maintain pockets of habitat in an otherwise dry riverbed south of Albuquerque.

Gensler said that as he watched the first water flow through the Sabinal ditch, he saw a pair of little silvery minnows, driven by an instinct to swim upstream, pushing their way up the ditch. The hope is that, as the riverbed itself dries, fish in what’s left of the Rio Grande’s dwindling flow will find their way to the four outfalls.

“I’ve already seen fish up in here,” Gensler said. “If you put a little bit of water out there, they’re going to exploit it.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.