From Colorado to Mexico, communities siphon and spread water from the Rio Grande. For about a century, every drop of that water has been divvied up among cities and farmers. It’s not unusual to stand alongside an irrigation ditch in New Mexico and hear someone complain that too much water is flowing to Texas. But, in fact, Texas stands on solid ground in its lawsuit against New Mexico over the Rio Grande, oral arguments for which are scheduled for January in the U.S. Supreme Court. If New Mexico loses, southern farmers will take a hit—and so will the state budget.
On a chilly, late-November morning, commuters rumble across the bridge over the Rio Grande on Avenida César Chávez in Albuquerque. Near the river below, two students from the South Valley Academy demonstrate how to measure groundwater levels. Alberto Martinez lowers the aptly-named beeper tape into a vertical pipe in the ground and cranks the reel. When the weighted end of the cable hits water, it beeps. Lynette Diaz records the depth at which it hits groundwater—211 centimeters if you’re curious—and the two head to the next station.
From downtown Albuquerque, it’s a straight shot south down Second Street to Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge. Along the way, drivers will pass railyards and baseball fields, salvage yards and irrigated fields. Jets taking off from the Sunport rumble low and loud, and plumes of contamination, from military and industrial activities, lurk in the waters belowground. Pulling into the parking lot at Valle de Oro, near the southern edge of the Mountain View Neighborhood, first-time visitors might pause and wonder why they’re there, exactly. Squint, and they’ll see cottonwoods of the bosque in the distance, and an old dairy barn painted with images of dancers.
“I’m openly skeptical we’ll ever be able to fill Elephant Butte Reservoir again,” Dr. David Gutzler told attendees of a recent climate change conference. That’s given the trend toward diminished flows in the Rio Grande resulting from the continued global rise in temperature. The University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Studies Department professor delivered the grim news on a crisp, yellow and blue fall morning along the bosque in Albuquerque. Since the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation completed the reservoir in 1916 to supply farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas with water, the reservoir’s levels have fluctuated—from highs in the 1940s to lows in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Many New Mexicans are familiar with the wet period that lasted from 1984 through 1993; between 1980 and 2006, the state’s population increased by 50 percent. But then the region was hit with drier conditions—and increasing temperatures.
Peering through binoculars, Glenn Harper tries to spot the white rumps of pronghorn. The hooved mammals, sometimes mistakenly called “antelope,” are speedy—and hard to spot on an August afternoon atop Santa Ana Mesa. Harper is the range and wildlife division manager with the Pueblo of Santa Ana’s Department of Natural Resources. After a few minutes, he and Dan Ginter, the pueblo’s range program manager, try an easier way to locate the herd. They pull out telemetry equipment, which picks up a signal from one of the animal’s radio collars. There’s a clump of pronghorn lazing near the tree line a few hundred yards away.
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.
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced its official list of national monuments under review, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order last month directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the designations previous presidents had made under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Two New Mexico monuments are on that list: near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the southern part of the state. Related story: Trump review of national monuments includes two in NM
The Interior Department is soliciting public comment on the review, which was spurred by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s opposition to national monuments, including President Barack Obama’s 2016 designation of Bears Ears and President Bill Clinton’s 1996 designation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. To submit comments on the review requires more than a Facebook click. You’re going to have to navigate a bit, but here are the details on how to do it: Comments may be submitted online after May 12 at http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or by mail to Monument Review, MS-1530, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.
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.
If you haven’t gone out to look at the Rio Grande, no matter where along its banks you live, now’s the time. The snowmelt is pouring down the channel, causing the river to overbank in lots of places throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley. In southern New Mexico, the normally dry channel is also running as water managers are moving water from reservoirs to southern New Mexico fields and orchards and to Texas. Speaking of snowmelt, March was an exceptionally warm month in New Mexico. According to the National Weather Service, 143 record-high temperatures were broken across 34 weather stations on 15 days.
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.