March 28, 2017

Rio Grande water managers freed up from some ESA constraints

Laura Paskus

Toward the end of March, snowmelt was ripping down the Rio Grande

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. That’s because last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed with water managers that operations in the Middle Rio Grande are not jeopardizing the survival of a rare fish. In 2016, FWS issued what’s called a “no jeopardy” opinion on how water management operations are affecting the Rio Grande silvery minnow, a two-inch long fish that’s protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Under the FWS’ 2003 plan for the silvery minnow, water managers were required to keep a small amount of water moving in the Albuquerque stretch of the Rio Grande. Now, instead of following mandated flow targets, Reclamation will instead try to manage the river to improve fish densities.

How the agency manages water will be up to them, said David Campbell, the FWS’ branch chief who oversees large river restoration recovery projects.

“There are no flow requirements in the Middle Rio Grande at all,” Campbell said, adding that if the river dries and the rare fish can be rescued from puddles, the agency will still do summertime salvage work. And if monitoring shows that fish densities are low, he said, they’ll continue supplementing populations with fish raised in hatcheries.

Under the new plan, called a Biological Opinion, Reclamation and its partners will also build fish passage structures on its diversions. These are designed to allow fish to move into different stretches of the river and escape dry conditions on their own.  Right now, Campbell said, Reclamation is working on a preliminary design at San Acacia.That stretch of the river channel north of Socorro is higher than the adjacent land. Since the mid-1990s, it has regularly dried each summer when farmers divert the river’s waters for irrigation into canals and ditches and onto alfalfa fields, chile rows and pecan orchards.

Fish out of water

The silvery minnow once lived throughout the length of the Rio Grande’s 1,800 miles, as well as within one of its tributaries, the Pecos River. But during the early- to mid-20th century, Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built dams, diversions and reservoirs on the rivers. The two agencies needed to serve cities and irrigation districts and protect communities from flooding. All that work changed the rivers and their ecosystems and affected the species that depended on them.

Laura Paskus

Silvery minnows that are part of the “parent population” at a hatchery in southeastern New Mexico

By the 1990s, the silvery minnow, once one of the most common fish in the two rivers, had disappeared entirely from the Pecos and survived in only a 174-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. Then in 1994, FWS listed it for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Two years after that, about 90 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque dried. That event galvanized biologists working at FWS and angered activists.

Environmental groups sued Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers for not doing more to keep water in the river. Republican and Democratic politicians alike fought against the idea, which was framed by some, including Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, as taking water away from people. A collaborative program was formed to address the issues; it included state, local and federal partners as well as millions of federal dollars.

Meanwhile, drought continued and the river kept drying. Despite efforts of the FWS and its partners to salvage minnows from the riverbed in the summer, stock hatchery-raised fish in the fall and monitor their populations year-round, the wild fish population continued to plummet.

But there’s one thing nearly everyone came to agree on: a healthy spring spike in flows allows the fish to spawn in large numbers. And when there are more fish in the spring, more can survive the summer, even if the channel does dry in the summer.

In recent years, Reclamation, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District have coordinated operations to ensure there’s a bump in spring flows for spawning.

Laura Paskus

Thomas Archdeacon getting ready to stock silvery minnows in the river at Escondida in 2014

That has helped, said Thomas Archdeacon, a fish biologist with FWS. As for summer salvage operations, under the new plans FWS biologists probably will be more “relaxed.” Over the past decade, biologists have gone out to the river as stretches dried, surveyed for puddles and scooped out any minnows they could find among the carp and red shiners and even the occasional rogue goldfish. They then load the rare fish into tanks on the backs of ATVs. Those tanks then get transferred to trucks, which are driven to where the river is still flowing.

Oftentimes, a whole day’s work would yield just a handful of minnows.

That process will change.

“If I feel like we’re not getting enough fish to make it worth our time, we’ll stop. Or if we’re getting stuck a lot and not rescuing fish,” Archdeacon said. “If we’re getting a lot, then we’ll focus on those areas.”

This year, Reclamation is hoping drying will be minimal and that it won’t start until July or August. And with snowmelt coming down the river right now, Archdeacon isn’t too worried about what might happen in the next few months.

“If we can have good spring runoff, and then only minimal to no drying in the summer,” that would be good, he said. “The population can withstand drying, but not if there wasn’t a spring runoff.”

Evolving river, elected officials

Some major changes have occurred within the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers water to farmers in the more-than 200 mile span from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir, in recent years.

More progressive candidates have won positions on the board of directors. Then, in 2015, the district hired Mike Hamman to replace Chief Engineer Subhas Shah, who had led the district for nearly four decades. Hamman came to the irrigation district from Reclamation, where he’d earned a reputation for being savvy, communicative and hard-working.

He’d also been in the thick of the silvery minnow issue from the beginning. Hamman remembers when the silvery minnow was first listed for protection under the ESA—and the irrigation district’s reaction. “The first response was denial. It wasn’t the district’s fault or obligation,” he said. “It was a federal problem, that’s where it started.”

Laura Paskus

MRGCD’s Mike Hamman (l) and David Gensler (r)

Hamman explained that the district’s infrastructure was built in the 1920s, but it relied heavily on the ditches and acequias already in place along the river. The big changes, he said, happened later—more dams and reservoirs, the narrowing of the channel and the construction of levees and the low-flow conveyance channel. That channel was built in the 1950s to move water more quickly from San Acacia to Elephant Butte Reservoir because at that time, engineers considered the river channel inefficient. Cochiti Dam, built in the 1960s and ‘70s, was the final blow for the natural ecosystem of the Middle Rio Grande.

That’s the baseline that the district is working with today, said Hamman. “Those all contributed to the river as we know it today.”

Over time, Hamman said, the district accepted some responsibility for the impacts of operations.

But he added that those impacts have had both negative and positive effects on the river. MRGCD hydrologist David Gensler, for example, says the current system of reservoirs and diversions keeps the river from drying for longer even longer stretches and periods of time.

“The silvery minnow has persisted in our reach of the river,” said Hamman.  “There has to be a reason behind that.”

“We have learned a lot in 13 years,” Hamman said last fall during an interview, referring to the fact that Reclamation, FWS, MRGCD, the Interstate Stream Commission, pueblos, farmers and others have met regularly as part of a collaborative program on Middle Rio Grande water operation and silvery minnow for more than a decade.

He doesn’t expect that collaboration to stop, nor for the district to change its management operations now that the “no jeopardy” opinion has been released. “I don’t expect we’ll ever stop managing [water operations and deliveries] to benefit the species,” he said. “It’s built into our DNA going forward.”

But, he’s glad for the new FWS plan, he said: “We wanted them to get out of our day-to-day business.”

Complicated plans

Not everyone is happy about the new biological opinion and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “no jeopardy” opinion.

WildEarth Guardians attorney Jen Pelz said the new plan might keep the minnow from going extinct, but it doesn’t move the fish toward recovery and a healthy, sustained population.

Attorney Jen Pelz with WildEarth Guardians

She also questioned the validity of the plan, which was released late last year by FWS. Earlier drafts of the biological opinion, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests by the non-profit, found that water operations in the Middle Rio Grande did in fact put the species in jeopardy.

NM Political Report asked to interview the Albuquerque-based FWS staffer who approved the “no jeopardy” opinion. But that person retired earlier this year.

Political tinkering isn’t unheard of at FWS when it comes to the minnow. The agency’s original opinion in 2001 required Reclamation to keep water in the river, even if it meant cutting water deliveries. Then, in 2003, FWS released another opinion that backed off its earlier stance, ignoring the recommendations of its own biologists and allowing the riverbed to dry after the start of irrigation season.

Pelz said this is a critical time to be thinking about the fish’s future, as well as the river’s. “We are already seeing the effects of climate change,” she said. “This is the window [to be doing something].”

The current biological opinion is supposed to be in place for 15 years, she said. After that, things will look a lot different.

Already, temperatures are rising across the region. Water managers already have to stretch supplies to meet all the demand for water from cities, farmers and even the bosque itself. When temperatures rise and rains don’t fall, plants in both the bosque and farm fields require more water from the river.

For more than a decade, activists have used Endangered Species Act protections for species like the silvery minnow as a way to protect the Rio Grande itself.

Laura Paskus

Last year, the Middle Rio Grande dried between the town of San Antonio and the southern boundary of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

“The river can’t do it all,” said Pelz. “It’s feeling the brunt of everyone’s use—and it’s the last being considered.” Unlike in some states, New Mexico’s rivers don’t have rights to their own waters. In states like Colorado and Oregon, rivers have what are called “instream water rights.” That is, water doesn’t only belong to farmers or cities. Rivers also have an intrinsic right to some of their own waters to support ecosystems, fish and wildlife.

On the Middle Rio Grande, however, the 2003 plan’s flow requirements were the only thing that kept longer stretches of the river from drying each summer.

Pelz recognizes that there’s more to the issue than just the old flow requirements. Water managers need to consider how much water cities and farmers need and also comply with the 1938 Rio Grande Compact and ensure water deliveries to Texas. Federal laws even control how much water can be stored in which reservoirs, when and under what circumstances. For example, if levels at Elephant Butte Reservoir—which stores water for Texas as well as farmers in southern New Mexico—are below a certain level, water can’t be stored at upstream reservoirs that were built after 1929.

Making any changes to the Rio Grande Compact would require not only an act of Congress. They would also need to be ratified by the state legislatures in Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Still, Pelz argues it would make more sense to store water in upstream reservoirs in northern New Mexico, where the evaporation levels aren’t as great as at Elephant Butte. Annually, about 80,000 acre feet of water evaporate from that reservoir. That’s water that could be better used, said Pelz.

She recognizes the challenges. But she thinks people can do better.

“With every single solution, people have a reason why we can’t do it,” she said. “Instead of going with the status quo, we could be thinking around the margins.”

One way to move partners toward thinking around the margins, she said, could include inviting a third party, such as the National Academies of Sciences, to evaluate the situation and its possible solutions.

Pelz also worries what will happen on the Rio Grande over time as the Endangered Species Act no longer serves as a “backstop.” Right now, water managers and users agree with the FWS recommendations on things like fish passage and population densities. And with the winter’s snowpack filling the river channel now, people may not be feeling the urgency of tomorrow’s problems.

“As people get more comfortable with the fact that they don’t have to comply with specific environmental regulations, or they know they won’t be enforced, they’re going to do things because they know they’ll get away with it,” said Pelz.