Wednesday night, New Mexico’s largest water utility agreed to sell water to the federal government to boost flows in the Rio Grande through the end of the year. Under the one-time lease, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will pay the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority $2 million for 20,000 acre feet of water stored in Abiquiu Reservoir. The water will be used to keep the river flowing from below Cochiti Dam, through Albuquerque and downstream of the Isleta Diversion Dam. During the meeting, John Stomp, chief operating officer of the water authority, assured board members it has that water to spare. “The reason we’re able to do this is we have managed our supplies really well in the past,” Stomp said.
Anyone who is paying attention to the Rio Grande’s drying riverbed and dropping reservoirs or is worried about declining groundwater levels probably has something to say about how the state might handle current—and coming—challenges. And they currently have their chance. The public comment period for New Mexico’s draft water plan ends next week. And while top state officials wouldn’t speak about the plan, New Mexico’s gubernatorial candidates were eager to share their thoughts about water, drought and water planning in the state. The draft plan released earlier this year by the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission examines statewide water issues through the lens of 16 regional water plans the ISC developed with input from local governments, nonprofits and stakeholders.
For almost a year, drought conditions have gripped New Mexico, dropping lake levels and drying out riverbeds and rangelands alike. Even this summer’s monsoon rains haven’t been enough to alleviate drought conditions or bump up reservoir levels. And while El Niño conditions brew in the Pacific—foretelling wetter conditions for the Southwest later this year—right now, the state’s water situation is dire. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is now notifying farmers that the water it had stored is almost depleted, months before irrigation season’s typical end around Halloween. They can’t predict exactly when the water they have stored in El Vado Lake, on the Chama River in northern New Mexico, will run out.
Irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande will be watching the skies for rain even more closely now. At its board meeting this week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it could soon enter what are called “P&P Operations”—when it can only meet the irrigation needs of about 8,800 acres of pueblo lands, which have the most senior water rights in the valley. The irrigation district had just under 21,000 acre feet of water in upstream storage as of Aug. 9 and estimated that water will be gone within two weeks. Once that stored water is “exhausted,” deliveries to other irrigators will cease until conditions change.
-In High Country News, Cally Carswell of Santa Fe pondered climate change and New Mexico’s future. You can read her essay, “Drought, dread and family in the American Southwest” here. -Cody Hooks with the Taos News is taking a three-part look at drought in New Mexico. His first story is on the state’s water planning process. -If you missed it a few days ago, New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine dismissed the Augustin Plains Ranch water application as “speculative.” Locals are happy, though wary, and the company called the move “short-sighted.” Here’s the story. At NMPR, we also wrote about drought and El Niño. (And found Gov. Susana Martinez still hadn’t convened the state’s Drought Task Force.)
-Ryan Lowery with the Las Vegas Optic reported on a land-access dispute in northern New Mexico involving the State Land Office.
Anyone who recently watched recent floodwaters rip down the Santa Fe River or the Rio Puerco—or had a skylight punctured by hail—might be tempted to declare that the annual monsoons ended New Mexico’s drought. But breaking the drought requires more than a handful of rainstorms—even big storms. And grappling with its impacts means policymakers should listen to scientists and constituents, ranging from farmers to city-dwellers. “Even though we got a lot of rain, and there’s great reporting on floods and great pictures on the internet, it’s a slow process to make up for what we’ve lost,” said New Mexico’s State Climatologist, David DuBois. The weekly New Mexico Drought Monitor, released Thursday, shows improvements in New Mexico, mainly in the eastern part of the state. But 99.9 percent of the state is still in drought, with 46 percent of the state experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions.
In early June, more than 1,000 people near Durango, Colorado, had to leave their homes as the 416 Fire swept across the landscape. Following a dismal snowpack, the region experienced a spring so hot and dry that the U.S. Drought Monitor labeled conditions “exceptional drought,” the worst category. Colorado wasn’t alone. An irregular bull’s-eye of dryness radiated outward from the entire Four Corners region, where Colorado meets New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. These circumstances offer something of a preview of the coming decades: While experts say the Southwest will continue to experience swings in precipitation from year to year, overall climate change is making the region and its river basins hotter and drier.
It’s been a busy week, and we have plenty of news to share from around the state and region. -New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has filed the state’s counterclaims in Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. We’ve posted those pleadings on our site, if you want to read them for yourself. Want to get this in your inbox a day earlier? Sign up for the email list.
Last year, we wrote about campers abandoning fires over Memorial Day weekend, a time when New Mexico’s forests experience a big bump in visitor activity. Reporting that story was pretty startling. All told, campers just in the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest abandoned 19 campfires over that three-day weekend. Tagging along with fire protection officers for just one day, we saw unsafe campfires (some because they weren’t contained within a fire ring, others because they were way too big for their rings), people firing guns close to other campers and drivers of both trucks and ATVs in places they shouldn’t be. People left campfires burning while hiking; others left smoldering fires and trash behind after packing up altogether.
Despite the rains that doused parts of New Mexico on Monday, the state officially entered into drought conditions on the Rio Grande when water levels in two key reservoirs dipped below a critical legal threshold. On Sunday, New Mexico entered into Article VII restrictions as storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs dropped below 400,000 acre-feet. Under Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact, that means Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any upstream reservoirs built after 1929. In the Rio Grande watershed, reservoirs capture and store native Rio Grande water and water piped from northwestern New Mexico via the San Juan-Chama Project. Each drop is earmarked for particular users and managed under the legal strictures of the compact.