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Late snow, ‘miracle May’ best NM water news in years

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

After three very dry years in a row, this year’s spring runoff and river flow, merely OK by some measures, is looking pretty special.

May rains and late-season snow put enough water into the Rio Grande to boost its flow to the highest level in five years, meet the needs of farmers and still leave enough for storage.

“The miracle May set up things very nicely for the district going into summer,” said Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers water to about 70,000 acres of cropland in the middle Rio Grande Valley.

Miracle or not, this May was the eighth-wettest on record for New Mexico. Albuquerque received 1.86 inches of rain, well above its half-inch average for the month.

Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor for the Albuquerque office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, also sees reason to be upbeat.

“It has been a very good year, considering what we have had in past years and what we had expected,” she said. “There has been so much water in the river.”

Donnelly said the gauge at the Central Avenue bridge measured the river’s flow at just under 3,000 cubic feet per second, the most since 2010. By comparison, Donnelly said, the spring river flow in 2013 didn’t get above 700 cfs and attained a flow of only 1,500 cfs in September of that year due to heavy rains. Last year, the river’s spring peak flow was 1,500 cfs.

There was, in fact, enough water from rain and snowpack runoff this year to permit New Mexico to come out of Rio Grande Compact restrictions on water storage for the first time since 2010.

According to Article VII of the compact, New Mexico can only store water in upstream reservoirs such as El Vado in Rio Arriba County when water levels at Elephant Butte Dam near Truth or Consequences and Caballo Dam 15 miles farther south rise above 400,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre at a depth of a foot). That happened for several weeks this spring.

“We stored 81,600 acre-feet of water in El Vado,” said David Gensler, hydrologist with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. “We had been hoping to store 40,000 acre-feet.”

Gensler said the conservancy district hasn’t had to use any of the stored water. And it may not have to, if the state’s monsoon season is as active as the National Weather Service has been forecasting.

“Last year, we were releasing water from storage on May 23,” Gensler said. “Here it is the first of July and we have not released any. You never know. Things can turn on a dime. But right now the outlook for farmers is pretty good. After three very dry years, this year has been a necessary relief. It keeps us from digging deeper into crisis. We get to put a little into savings.”

New Mexico went back under the compact restrictions in May when the Elephant Butte Irrigation District began taking water out of Elephant Butte and Caballo to serve irrigators in the southern part of the state.

Elephant Butte Lake, which has a capacity of about 2 million acre-feet of water, has 342,000 acre-feet, or 17 percent of capacity, now.

“That doesn’t sound great,” Donnelly said. “But it is 12 feet higher than it was at this time last year.”

Phil King, New Mexico State University civil engineering professor and water adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said the district is delivering more water to its irrigators than it has in recent years.

“In 2013, we delivered 3½ inches (enough water to cover an acre at a depth of 3½ inches) for the year, and that was the worst allotment in 100 years,” King said. “We delivered 7½ inches last year, and we’re up to 11 inches this year.”

King said the district probably will shut down irrigation on Aug. 15, unless the monsoon season is wet enough to stretch that out another week or two.

“The last five years have been so pathetic that we now have really low standards and this year looks good,” King said. “You can’t have the worst year ever every year. But we are still a long way from average.”

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