Last summer was rough on the Rio Grande.
This year is shaping up to be just as bad or worse, federal water managers said Thursday, as New Mexico battles a historic drought, below average snowpack and a grim summer forecast.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hydrologist Ed Kandl said during a presentation of the agency’s annual operating plan for the Rio Chama and Middle Rio Grande that summer river projections are “dismal” for Albuquerque all the way to Elephant Butte Reservoir.
Kandl said Rio Grande flows in Albuquerque could dip below a mere 200 cubic feet per second as soon as late June or early July.
“It’s even more bleak the farther south you get,” he said. “We could potentially see a dry river (in the San Acacia reach) sometime in June lasting all the way to the end of irrigation season in November.”
Water managers use current snowpack to help predict reservoir levels and river flows for the coming months, factoring in soil moisture and temperature and precipitation forecasts.
High-elevation sites near the Colorado-New Mexico border never reached average snow levels this year, and are already beginning to melt.
“Normally the high-level sites take a lot longer to start to melt,” Kandl said.
Irrigation districts and municipalities face tough decisions this summer if Rio Grande flows pan out as expected.
“This could be our only saving grace this year, is if we have a decent monsoon season,” Kandl said.
Agencies pieced together water supply during last year’s hot, dry summer to boost Rio Grande flows.
But many of those fail-safe options are not available this year.
In July, Rio Grande Compact commissioners from Colorado and Texas approved a release of more than 11 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir to benefit central New Mexico.
The water helped keep the river barely flowing through Albuquerque in the late summer months.
Agencies can’t store more water this year in the state’s main reservoirs because of Rio Grande Compact restrictions.
Carolyn Donnelly, Bureau of Reclamation water operations supervisor for the Albuquerque area, said it’s been about 30 years since the river stretch running through the city went dry.
“We really have to see what happens as the year goes on, but it seems that that’s where we’re going to be focusing our efforts, is keeping as much of the reach above the Isleta Diversion Dam wet,” Donnelly said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.