Without good summer rains, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque could see its lowest sustained levels since the 1970s, water managers said Wednesday.
In the midst of the fourth consecutive year of extreme drought, agencies are scrambling to stretch limited supplies and looking hopefully at a National Weather Service forecast for good summer rains.
“We hope the National Weather Service prediction for an early monsoon is right,” said Mike Hamman, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s area manager, at a water operations briefing. “But hope is not a plan.”
The plan, as presented Wednesday by bureau scientists, includes a risk that the Rio Grande will drop below legally mandated levels set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect dwindling populations of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. With flows in the river projected to be just one third of the long term average, the river through Albuquerque is forecast to drop to extremely low levels by early July.
A coalition of water agencies is planning a weeklong surge of extra of water to raise river levels modestly to mimic a spring runoff through Albuquerque to help the endangered fish spawn, Hamman said.
Even with the surge, expected within the next several weeks, river levels will be lower than a normal spring runoff. But the bureau’s annual Rio Grande operating plan acknowledges that, without rain, the river could be nearly dry from July through mid-October. The forecast is similar to last year’s, when it called for a near-dry river before July rains bailed the Rio Grande out.
Farmers will likely suffer the most, while metro area cities have groundwater to fall back on during the dry year.
With little water in storage behind upstream dams, farmers from Cochiti to Socorro County could see supplies running low by the end of June, depending after that on summer rains to keep irrigation ditches flowing, said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
What little snow pack there is in the mountains is melting early because of the warm weather, according to bureau hydrologist Ed Kandl. Early runoff has been the norm in recent years, Kandl said. “We’re pretty much almost guaranteed to be warm because of climate change,” Kandl explained.