Rio Grande still running high, officials keep an eye on levees

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.

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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.

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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.