From Rio Grande to ‘Rio Sand’?

The Rio Grande flows near Rio Bravo Boulevard on Monday afternoon. Water agencies anticipate the river could go dry throughout the city this summer, which hasn’t happened in more than 30 years. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The meandering, muddy Rio Grande is an icon flowing through New Mexico’s largest city.

But, this summer, kayakers navigating, sometimes wading, around sandbars and fish struggling to find moving water may become more common.

Water agencies anticipate the river could go completely dry throughout Albuquerque if a robust monsoon season fails to materialize.

“We could see drying in the Albuquerque reach that we haven’t seen since the ’80s,” said Jennifer Faler, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque area manager.

Every summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinates teams to rescue and relocate Rio Grande silvery minnows as the river dries. Most years, the work is focused in the river stretches south of Albuquerque.

“This year, we need (the teams) to be in the Albuquerque area for the first time,” Faler said.

Litigation on tap

WildEarth Guardians has filed a notice of intent to sue the state of New Mexico, Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife, and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to “ensure that ongoing and future activities related to water management and maintenance activities” on the middle Rio Grande will not jeopardize endangered fish and birds.

Tricia Snyder, who works with WildEarth Guardians on Rio Grande issues, said water managers should rethink the “over-allocated system.”

“We need to kind of go back to the drawing board and recognize what we have to work with,” she said, “and how climate change is going to impact what we have to work with in the future.”

The notice states the environmental group would “prefer to avoid litigation” over the alleged violations.

“I think our hope is that this (notice) is another pressure point that will help water managers recognize that the status quo is not working,” Snyder said. “Not for farmers, for cities, for the health of the river or for the plant and wildlife communities that depend on it.”

River diversion halted

Earlier this month, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority stopped diverting water from the Rio Grande and pivoted to groundwater supply.

The Rio Grande shows shallow and dry levels near Rio Bravo Boulevard on Monday. WildEarth Guardians has filed a notice of intent to sue state and federal water agencies under the Endangered Species Act to ensure ongoing and future river management protects fish and birds. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The switch, in response to declining river flows, began about two weeks earlier than last year.

In wetter years, the shutoff may not occur until August or September.

But Bernalillo County drought levels currently range from severe to exceptional, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The Albuquerque metro area has also recorded weeks of record-setting heat this month.

Mark Kelly, the utility’s water resources division manager, said the water authority’s 100-year plan accounts for drought and any necessary groundwater pumping.

Climate change and population growth also factor into the management plan.

“I don’t want people to think that we have one or two years of drought and it screws up the whole plan,” Kelly said.

The agency’s voluntary shutdown precludes a State Engineer requirement for water authority cutbacks on river diversions if Rio Grande flows at Alameda dip below 195 cubic feet per second or Central Avenue flows are under 122 cfs.

On the June 18 shutdown date, Alameda flows hovered just above 400 cfs and Central flows were just under 300 cfs.

Pushing conservation

This year’s diversion shutdown could last through November.

The utility’s aquifer storage and recovery programs use the arroyos and injection wells to recharge the groundwater supply for use in times of scarcity.

Fines for wasting water also are doubled under current drought restrictions.

Albuquerque could move to stricter measures if drought conditions get worse and customer water use rises.

“We are really pushing conservation in this time of increased groundwater use,” Kelly said.

The water authority is one of the only New Mexico agencies with surface water to give this summer.

The board voted Wednesday to lease more than 1.6 billion gallons of water from Abiquiu Reservoir to the Bureau of Reclamation for $500,000.

Water leasing

About 977 million gallons of the water will boost flows in the Albuquerque reach to help endangered species protection efforts.

Reclamation will direct 651 million gallons to an environmental conservation pool in Abiquiu.

Extensive river drying this early in the summer is rare in Albuquerque.

But it’s nothing new for southern New Mexico, where the river is called the “Rio Sand” most of the year, said Gabriel Vasquez, a Las Cruces city councilor.

“The river should be for more than just irrigators,” Vasquez said. “We should all have a stake in how water is managed collectively in this community. That is a very hard, complex law to change at the federal level.”

The river runs south of Elephant Butte Reservoir for about a month each summer during the local irrigation district’s short surface water allocation period.

Ángel Peña, executive director of the Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project based in Las Cruces, said his family eagerly awaits the day that the river will begin flowing each summer.

“This defining feature of our community helps me share the story of being Hispano, of being a Latino, and share that piece of southern New Mexico, with my kids,” he said.

But the flows will likely disappear by the end of June.

And, just like in Albuquerque and the middle valley, Las Cruces and other southern cities are watching the water level drop each day.

“For some in the Southwest, it may feel like it’s going to be an extra dry, extra hot year,” Peña said.

“For us down here, it’s just the next stair step in our ever-changing climate.”

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

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