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The implications of entering winter with mostly empty Elephant Butte

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Elephant and Caballo reservoirs, New Mexico’s two largest storage lakes on the Rio Grande, picked up a lot of water in the big September storms, but it appears they will still remain far short of a critical water management milestone codified in the Rio Grande Compact known as “Article VII”.

Elephant Butte Reservoir, as seen in 1916 or '17, courtesy Library of Congress

Elephant Butte Reservoir, as seen in 1916 or ’17, courtesy Library of Congress

The compact, signed in 1938, governs distribution of the Rio Grande’s water among Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Among its rules is a requirement that, when Elephant Butte and Caballo are low, New Mexico is prohibited from storing water in most of the state’s upstream Rio Grande Basin reservoirs. The idea behind the provision is to ensure that, when Elephant Butte gets low, we pass water downstream to ensure Texas gets a share. In years like 2014, that means central New Mexico water users, especially the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, can’t store water during high spring flows for later use during the drier months of summer.

It looks like that is what will happen in 2014. The Butte and Caballo had 151,00 acre feet of usable Rio Grande Project water as of Friday afternoon. Article VII requires them to get above 400,000 acre feet, which makes it extremely unlikely that we’ll get out of Article VII in time for upstream storage next spring, according to Phil King of New Mexico State University. “It would take some cabin crushing snowpack” to get enough water to get out of Article VII, according to King, given the relatively dry conditions going into the winter and the fact that farmers downstream will all start using water in the spring, reducing Elephant Butte and Caballo even as they starts rising with the melt-out.

There are some quirks in the rules that could allow the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which provides farm water from Cochiti to Socorro County, to store a limited amount of water in El Vado Reservoir, according to David Gensler, the district’s water manager. But if we don’t get out of Article VII restrictions, the district’s ability to save water for summer use will be constrained, Gensler said.

Article VII restrictions have been in place continuously since July 8, 2010, according to Rolf Schmidt-Petersen of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.