Recent storms packed the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with healthy snow levels, and meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions will persist through the spring. This is welcome news after last year’s dry conditions. But in the long term, forecasters and farmers still remain cautious. That’s because long-term drought has dried out the state’s soils. And reservoirs remain low, particularly on the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Chama River.
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.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) is curtailing water deliveries to some users and warning people of fire danger in the bosque. The Rio Grande has been running far below normal this spring due to drier-than-normal conditions in the mountains this winter. About 20 miles of the river are currently dry south of Albuquerque. This week, MRGCD told Water Bank participants they can no longer irrigate this spring. The MRGCD delivers water to about 10,000 irrigators across 70,000 acres between Cochiti dam and Elephant Butte Reservoir.
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.
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.