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Conservancy District partnering to better handle drought

In the Rio Grande Basin, the water management challenges posed by a highly variable and extremely limited water supply have been exacerbated in recent decades by prolonged drought, combined with increasing basin temperatures. Water scarcity plays a key role in water management. Climate change projections, such as those developed by the Bureau of Reclamation, indicate water supply in this basin is decreasing, while demand for that water, even without further development, is increasing as a result of increasing temperatures. Timing and spatial distribution of water availability is also changing, placing new demands on existing operational strategies and physical infrastructure. Water managers are now planning for a hotter, drier and even more variable future.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) had no formal way to assess drought conditions and, therefore, had no policies in place to modify operations to respond to different drought stages. Through a grant under Reclamation’s WaterSMART Drought Response Program, the MRGCD developed a drought contingency plan that includes an innovative drought contingency tool to calculate a monthly drought status and corresponding triggers for drought severity designations. MRGCD is testing the system internally this year and hopes to begin posting a monthly drought status to its website next year. This status update will allow the district’s farmers, as well as other water users such as municipalities, to know what actions they might expect from the district in response to drought status. This tool was designed to enhance consistency of drought mitigation actions and improve stakeholder outreach during water-short times. It also allows all water management agencies to share information and operate based on consistent drought level indicators. Other districts could use this approach for drought monitoring and management.

For several decades, Reclamation has been leasing water, which it releases strategically to meet the needs of the endangered species in the basin, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow and southwestern willow flycatcher. Although most of these leases of supplemental water are made by Reclamation, under dire conditions during the summer of 2018, Reclamation entered into a partnership with the Audubon Society of New Mexico to release nearly 1,000 acre-feet of water to keep a reach of the Rio Grande from drying up. Reclamation hopes to continue to make such partnerships in the future, and to make better use of the state of New Mexico’s strategic water reserve in order to share the responsibility for maintaining river flows with local water management partners and non-governmental organizations.

In response to diminishing supplies of water in the Rio Grande Basin, Reclamation and the MRGCD have initiated a pilot leasing program for irrigation water within the MRGCD service area. The program is being coordinated by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through a 5-year cooperative agreement funded by Reclamation. The program aims to build tools and operational flexibility needed to support river flows – in balance with irrigation needs – through efficiency gains and water transactions. This is the first program of this type in this reach of the Rio Grande. The pilot leasing program is a commitment by both Reclamation and MRGCD to the 2016 Middle Rio Grande Biological Opinion (USFWS, 2016).

An example partnership includes Reclamation’s Cooperative Agreement with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Next steps include implementing, testing and monitoring several initiatives in two key areas: (1) improving deliveries to the river, including enhancing the benefits of those deliveries for species; and (2) decreasing irrigation demand through infrastructure efficiency, operational changes and late-season forbearance by irrigators.

Santiago Maestas is a participant in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District Conservation Advisory Committee and the Bureau of Reclamation New Mexico Basin Study Community Organizations Sector committee.


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