December 25, 2018

2018 Top Stories #4: Rio Grande runs dry, Elephant Butte Reservoir drops below 4% capacity

Laura Paskus

When the Rio Grande dries, it affects fish and wildlife populations, as well as the cottonwood forest

Note: All week we will be counting down the top ten stories of 2018, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. See them all here as they come in!

Throughout the different seasons, I visit various spots in the bosque along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. In the winter I like looking for bald eagles and porcupines, and in the spring, it’s fun to see where spring snowmelt is saturating restoration projects or creating backwaters for fish habitat.

Early in April 2018, when I visited one of my springtime spots on the west side of the river, the new grove of cottonwood saplings was completely dry and the river on one side of the island was little more than a trickle.

The winter had been dry, the mountains low on snow. Of course there wouldn’t be a roaring snowmelt.

Still, it was a shock to see, and also to learn that same week the Rio Grande—New Mexico’s largest river—had dried south of Socorro.

Throughout the spring, summer and fall, we kept readers up-to-date on what was happening with the river and pressed gubernatorial candidates on the drying, climate change and water management. We also took a closer look at dropping reservoir levels around the state, too—and visited Elephant Butte Reservoir in September, when it was below four percent capacity—while offering readers context on climate change, drought and forecasts for El Niño conditions this winter.

There are positive things happening right now: snows are falling in the mountains, the incoming gubernatorial administration will take water issues more seriously than Gov. Susana Martinez did for eight years and agencies, tribes and nonprofits are working together. But to be sure, the challenges aren’t going away. And they are likely to become more severe in the coming years. In other words, drying rivers and dropping reservoirs will continue to be important stories in the coming years, too.