As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for water operations on the Rio Grande. “I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”
Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Rio Grande is swelling over its channel, spreading water into the bosque and nurturing the next generation of cottonwood trees. That overbanking is good for endangered species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other more prominent species like cottonwood, said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), which delivers water to farmers and the six pueblos in the valley. “On the other hand, it makes us nervous about the levees,” he said. For more than 40 miles in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the river is up against its levees. And the Rio Grande is still rising.
This spring has already been a busy one for water managers. The Rio Grande and its acequias and irrigation ditches are currently full and forecasters predict more snow for the mountains this weekend. Unlike many years over the past two decades, when water managers wondered how to spread out water deliveries to farmers and growers so everyone makes it through the growing season, this year the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) is watching for a different problem, one born of high water levels—the pressure on levees. “It’s feast or famine,” said Mike Hamman, chief engineer of the district, which delivers water to irrigators from Cochiti dam to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. It’s also election season in the district.
Even before this week’s storm, the Rio Grande was ripping through its channel. Winter storms had packed the mountains with snow, and warm March temperatures sent snowmelt down the river. “The snowmelt is coming earlier than we’d like, but if there’s enough snow up there, it may just continue, and it may just be a great year,” said Carolyn Donnelly, head of water operations for the Albuquerque Area Office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That agency is responsible for operating most of the dams and reservoirs on the Rio Grande and making sure water gets to downstream cities and farmers. For the first time in more than nearly 15 years, the agency and its partners won’t have to hustle to make sure the Albuquerque stretch of the river doesn’t dry during the heat of the summer.