NM water managers warn communities to prepare for low Rio Grande

The Rio Grande at N.M. 346 in June. About 12 billion gallons of stored water from El Vado Reservoir helped keep the river flowing in central New Mexico last year, but water managers won’t have that option this year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico water agencies are urging farmers to think twice about planting crops in what could be a tight water year. The state faces a big water debt to downstream users, and a multi-year drought is taking its toll.

The Office of the State Engineer recommends “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.

Irrigation supply along the river from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir is governed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district cut its 2020 irrigation season a month short, because there wasn’t enough water to go around. A shorter season also helped deliver some river water to Elephant Butte as part of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact obligations.

In January, the district board voted to delay the start of the 2021 season until April 1, a month later than usual.

This year is on track to be a situation of water shortages and storage restrictions unlike any since the 1950s, said Mike Hamman, the district’s chief engineer and CEO and an Interstate Stream Commissioner. The district also anticipates receiving as little as half the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.

“The hydrology really started to shift in the early ’90s,” Hamman said. “We’ve got into this cycle of below-average, average, above-average years, and I’ve noticed that our climatic conditions (limit) the available snowpack. That exacerbates things a little bit more now, where we need to have well-above-average snowpacks to address the poor watershed conditions that may have resulted from a poor summer rain period or fall moisture.”

The Rio Grande is often pegged as a “feast or famine” river. And 2019 was a “feast” year, with spring flows so high they damaged levees and caused minor flooding.

But even in a good year, New Mexico must deliver a proportionate amount of water to Elephant Butte.

The more water the state receives, the more that must flow into the southern reservoir. That obligation, and El Vado Reservoir’s limited storage capacity because of ongoing repairs, makes it difficult to save up for the “famine” years.

The river stretch between Bosque del Apache and Elephant Butte is a “no man’s land,” Hamman said, with high-depletion areas that hamper efficient water delivery.

Regional farmers are advised to prepare for severe water shortages by exercising “extreme caution” in planting crops this spring and by using any available water only for the most essential uses.

“If there are any silver linings to drought and water shortages, it’s that it’s an opportunity to get everybody’s attention and make substantive change,” Hamman said.

A drier year could prompt farmers to repair irrigation systems, enroll in fallowing programs to let their fields rest for a year, or plant fewer “thirsty” crops.

The current Rio Grande Compact water debt of about 100,000 acre-feet, or 32 billion gallons, restricts how much the state can store in reservoirs.

By the end of January, the state will have released about 3,200 acre-feet, or about 1 billion gallons, of “debit water” from El Vado and Nichols Reservoir near Santa Fe to Elephant Butte.

Last year’s monsoon season from May to September was the driest on record for New Mexico.

The Rio Grande could go completely dry this summer all the way from Angostura Dam north of Bernalillo through Albuquerque, especially if this year brings another lackluster monsoon season.

“That’s a likelihood that could happen this year, and if it does, it will be a shock to the entire community,” Hamman said. “If it turns out better, great, but we’ve got to plan for the worst.”

The Rio Grande barely flows under the Interstate 40 bridge in Albuquerque in August. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

‘Last page in our playbook’

The fail-safe options New Mexico relied on last year to stretch the Rio Grande water supply won’t be available this year. This summer on the river may look like what water managers and environmental groups worked to stave off during last year’s hot, dry summer months.

The Middle Rio Grande didn’t look good in July 2020. The MRCGD had just a few days of water supply left.

No water could have meant no irrigation for farmers, but also limited river habitat for endangered species, scarce drinking water supply for local communities, and meager flows for river recreation.

Then came word from the other Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado and Texas: New Mexico had permission to boost river flows by releasing a total of 12 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir.

“That was the last page in our playbook, or pretty darn close to it,” Schmidt-Petersen told the Journal.

The release kept the Rio Grande from drying completely in the Albuquerque stretch and helped extend the irrigation season for central New Mexico farmers.

Colorado River water diverted via the San Juan-Chama Project also added to the trickling native Rio Grande flows.

Last summer’s massive release from El Vado was water that had been stored as assurance that the state’s Rio Grande Compact debt would be paid.

That water is gone. New Mexico still has to “pay back” the 12 billion gallons, plus any obligations accrued this year.

State Engineer John D’Antonio said the drought is shaping up to be as severe as the conditions the state experienced in the 1950s.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December 2020 emergency drought declaration could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions.

“There could be appropriated up to $750,000 for each eligible and qualified applicant that the governor may designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if there is any,” D’Antonio said.

The state Drought Task Force would determine which organizations or local governments receive the money, which under the emergency declaration could be used for water conservation projects, to offset economic losses caused by the drought, or as a match for federal funding.

The Rio Grande at Bridge SW in Albuquerque in late September. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Gloomy forecast

New Mexico will endure another double whammy of limited water supply and growing Rio Grande Compact water debt if snowpack levels don’t improve dramatically by early spring.

Statewide snowmelt runoff forecasts published Jan. 1 showed most of New Mexico at less than 80% of normal levels.

Since then, some snowstorms have brought much-needed moisture to the northern half of the state.

But New Mexico needs several months of above-average snow and rain to dig out of a drought before the hot summer months.

“Those are stark numbers given that last year was quite dry and our reservoirs are drawn down in many of our basins,” Schmidt-Petersen said.

Groundwater wells in the lower Rio Grande region of southern New Mexico supply water for municipal and agricultural uses when the river is low.

“That’s not the same in the middle valley for all the farmers there,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “There are limitations on wells that have been in place for long periods of time, so some places can pump and some cannot, and similarly all the way up the Chama.”

Rio Grande Compact issues and regional hydrology will be the focus of an Interstate Stream Commission study session on Monday, Feb. 1, at 3 p.m.

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

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