Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
ELEPHANT BUTTE – Neal Brown dismantled, relocated and reassembled one of his marinas at Elephant Butte Lake State Park last week.
Dropping reservoir levels prompted the rare, labor-intensive move to deeper water.
On a sweltering afternoon, Brown maneuvers a boat near the 300-foot-tall dam structure at the south end of the reservoir.
He blasts the horn at a watercraft cruising near a bright buoy.
“It’s real shallow, and they’re not supposed to be there,” says Brown, whose Lago Rico company operates the reservoir’s marinas. “That boat could have some damage coming in.”
The reservoir is currently 8% to 10% full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Texas Water Development Board.
Reclamation projections show the lake could dip to a mere 1% of capacity after the Elephant Butte Irrigation District season concludes later this month.
Brown said he tries to avoid slipping into “doomsday mode” while watching the forecasts.
But he thinks this year is an opportunity for agencies to re-evaluate water management practices and find a way to prevent the near-historic reservoir lows.
“After Fourth of July, it will be dropping about a foot a day or so,” Brown said.
Rock formations and sand surrounding the lake tell the “feast and famine” story of the Rio Grande.
Lines far above the water call back to the years New Mexico had good snowmelt, monsoon seasons and full reservoirs.
In recent years, the lower water lines are the ones exposed.
RVs take advantage of the real estate as the water recedes, careful to avoid muddy areas that were recently underwater.
There is a narrow window this summer for good lake recreation, said Edna Trager, City of Elephant Butte mayor and co-owner of Zia Kayak Outfitters.
“My concern is that we will shrivel up and die down here,” Trager said. “That’s why we’re sounding the alarm.”
The mayor joined Brown and a coalition of local lawmakers and business owners, led by U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, and sent a June 10 letter to Camille Touton, acting commissioner for Reclamation.
The group called for regulatory reform and infrastructure investments to tackle the lake’s “existential crisis” this year.
“Even if we find out that water levels might not be as bad as they were projecting, that doesn’t mean the problem is going to go away,” Trager said. “You can’t keep starting each year from the very bottom.”
Elephant Butte Reservoir is considered part of Texas under the Rio Grande Compact, which governs water deliveries between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
A team of New Mexico state and federal agencies bears the burden of delivering river water from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to the southern reservoir.
Jennifer Faler, Reclamation’s Albuquerque area manager, pointed to prolonged drought, not water management, as a major factor in the lake levels.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows more than 60% of New Mexico is experiencing severe drought.
“Outside of the irrigation season, we’re talking November to March when we’re not irrigating, the volume of water that flows past the Otowi gage is roughly the same as volume entering Elephant Butte,” Faler said. “The channel is clearly conveying water effectively.”
The Cochiti Dam, constructed in the 1970s on the Rio Grande’s main stem, may have also made Elephant Butte levels less consistent.
“You look at pre-Cochiti flows, and it was routinely 10,000 cubic feet per second, and every one in four years you’d see a low of 1,000 cfs,” Faler said. “The river could maintain itself. When Congress told the Corps (of Engineers) to build Cochiti, they told us to mechanically maintain the river.”
Reclamation recently realigned three miles of the San Acacia river reach south of Albuquerque, Faler said, which is “likely the reason why we’re not seeing significant drying yet below Bosque del Apache.”
The federal agency also removes vegetation to improve flows and prevent sediment plugs.
An extensive permitting process for those projects stems from environmental laws designed to protect endangered species habitat.
More sediment removal and watershed restoration projects could improve water delivery efficiency in and out of Elephant Butte, said Earl Conway, New Mexico Bass Nation’s conservation director who helps restore or introduce fish habitat in several state reservoirs.
“A dam starts dying the day it’s built, as it fills in with sediments,” Conway said. “Elephant Butte will probably be dead in 75 years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s just a few generations of farmers, and then they’ll be in a world of hurt for water.”
The Elephant Butte dam was built from 1912 to 1916.
For nearly a decade, Conway has installed more fish habitat, including plant life, at the southern reservoir.
“Even though the lake’s extremely low, a lot of our fish habitat is in just the right depth,” he said. “Without that the fish would just have sand and rocks. We’ll probably have one of the better spawns this year.”
Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said western waterways and reservoirs like Elephant Butte should play a major role in the infrastructure funding packages working their way through Congress.
“We need a minimum pool not only for downstream use for farmers, and to provide assurances that they’re going to have a season next year, but also for the ecosystem, for fish and for the local economy,” Dow said.
Dow signed onto the letter with Rep. Herrell.
She also joined fellow state Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Rep. Luis M. Terrazas, R-Santa Clara, in a letter requesting specific projects from New Mexico’s congressional delegation.
The lawmakers asked for support of $30 million for Reclamation to clear sediment in the Socorro and San Marcial reaches of the middle Rio Grande, and $5 million for the Bureau of Land Management to manage the watershed and improve drainage surrounding the reservoir.
“The dramatic water levels that can go to 10% or lower in a single season are not good for the structure of the dam that’s past its life,” Dow said.
Elephant Butte Irrigation District farmers growing chile and pecans south of the lake will receive a four-inch supply of surface water from the reservoir this year.
That’s just enough for one irrigation cycle, said Gary Esslinger, the district’s treasurer and manager.
The district started its season on June 1.
“If we get lucky and monsoons come in, we could extend our season past July 1,” Esslinger said. “But right now, we may be out of water by June 25.”
In July 2020, state engineer and New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact Commissioner John D’Antonio secured permission from Texas and Colorado to release about 12 billion gallons of water from El Vado Reservoir.
The water had been stored in upstream reservoirs to be delivered to Elephant Butte in the fall after central New Mexico’s irrigation season ended.
The fail-safe decision kept the river flowing through Albuquerque and extended the irrigation season until October.
It also racked up New Mexico’s water debt to downstream users.
Esslinger said he believes that last summer’s Compact Commission decision was an “olive branch” to middle valley farmers.
“But in hindsight, it hurt us down here,” he said.
For Brown, summer on the lake will be a waiting game to see just how low the reservoir will drop.
“I know there’s a big argument that this is for irrigation, not for recreation,” Brown said. “What I say to that is that if there’s no water in here, there’s no irrigation. A drought plan with a requirement for a minimum pool here could benefit both.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.