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Another tough year on tap for Rio Grande water users

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The bosque lines the banks of the Rio Grande as it the river flows through Albuquerque, looking north from near the I-40 bridge on May 23, 2013. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Cities and farmers that depend on water from the Rio Grande could be in for another tough year.

Snowpack from the mountains that feed the waterway is halfway gone, and there has been little to no precipitation in the last month. That means federal officials will be managing the river for drought for a fifth consecutive year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the annual operating plan Thursday for the Middle Rio Grande. Some of the lakes that store river water are in better shape than last year but nowhere close to the 100 percent average that federal officials had predicted a month ago when snowpack was plentiful.

The Bureau of Reclamation said it is negotiating water leases to supplement river flows through at least June 15. After that, the agency can let small stretches of the river south of Albuquerque and above Elephant Butte to run dry, spokeswoman Mary Carlson said.

For now, federal officials are forecasting the flow into reservoirs along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico to be about half of average. Albuquerque, Santa Fe and others that rely on San Juan-Chama water will see a shortage in their allocations, based on Thursday’s predictions.

The agency also is working to find extra water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. With little water flowing down the river, minnow management has turned into a vicious cycle that starts each fall with the release of hatchery-raised fish, followed by hopes for snow and runoff in the spring. Summers often are spent scrambling to rescue stranded on dry land.

The outlook for the river could improve with an expected above-average monsoon season. Extreme drought also dropped off New Mexico’s map in March – the first time that’s happened in four years. Tom Thorpe of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which supplies farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley with water, said the state was in a similar spot last year, but it pulled though with some short-lived curtailments to farmers thanks to rain.

“It’s not a horrible year. It’s not the best year we’ve ever seen,” he said. “But it’s going to be challenging for us to manage the water and for farmers to be frugal in their use of the water. If everyone plays nice in the sandbox, we’re OK.”