August 18, 2023

The Rio Grande is drying in the Albuquerque area

Hannah Grover

The Rio Grande is seen on Aug. 17, 2023 near Montano Road in Albuquerque.

The Rio Grande looks significantly different today than it did just a couple of months ago, as arid conditions led to drying in the Albuquerque area.

Water managers are teaming up with fish biologists in preparation for the river to dry and to work to mitigate the impacts on the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Meanwhile, irrigators have been told to expect changes in water availability and delivery schedules.

“Reclamation and our partners continue to coordinate closely to manage every drop of water for multiple purposes. In the last two decades, Reclamation has leased just under 500,000 acre-feet of water to supplement flows through the Middle Rio Grande for endangered and threatened species, which, at times, also increased inflow to Elephant Butte Reservoir,” the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler said in a press release. “We remain committed to supporting agricultural and municipal uses while meeting Endangered Species Act requirements to support the Middle Rio Grande ecosystem. We continue to lease available water, but through this multi-decadal drought, our options are becoming increasingly more limited.”

This comes as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District prepares for an end of San Juan-Chama Project water releases within a few days. Currently, water from the San Juan-Chama Project makes up about 40 percent of the Rio Grande’s flow. Once the last of the San Juan-Chama Project water for the year leaves the Rio Grande, the river will rely on only the natural flows, which are limited by the lack of rainfall.

MRGCD CEO Jason Casuga visited areas along the district’s infrastructure on Thursday.

He commented on the hot weather when speaking with NM Political Report via phone Thursday afternoon.

“It was hot. And the river looks very different right now than it did in May,” he said.

Casuga said the heat continues the temperature trend that the area experienced in July. This summer, Albuquerque and much of New Mexico experienced record-breaking temperatures and this has had an effect on the Rio Grande and the MRGCD.

In contrast, this spring was relatively wet and the Rio Grande experienced decent runoff from snowpack in the mountains.

But that runoff has stopped and the river is now drying up.

The San Juan-Chama Project water has propped up the Rio Grande and the irrigation that occurs in the middle valley, but, Casuga said, the MRGCD is coming to the end of its yearly supply of San Juan-Chama water.

“We’ve been releasing that water since July,” he said. “And so we’re coming to the end of that, and the river looks like it. It’s a very, very different looking river than it was two or three months ago.”

The hot temperatures this summer increased demand for irrigation water. Casuga said there weren’t many days below 95 degrees in July and the valley received “almost negligible” precipitation.

This year is also very different from last year. Last year the Rio Grande experienced drying in the Albuquerque area, but the monsoon season came and brought relief to farmers.

Related: As drought continues, river flows dwindle in Albuquerque area

Casuga said at this time last year, the district was experiencing cooler temperatures and a lot of intermittent rainstorms, which led to less demand for irrigation.

“Plants need water. And they need that water sooner at times when you get these temperatures and the sustained heat that we have,” Casuga said “So I think that’s where you see this increased demand.”

In addition to the increased demand for water for plants, the high temperatures also means that more water evaporates from the river and ditches.

The San Juan-Chama Project, which pumps water from the San Juan River in the Colorado River Basin to the Rio Grande Basin, provides a vital tool for irrigators in the Middle Valley. But, Casuga said, the MRGCD is watching the discussions about the future of the Colorado River.

“So what we see on the Colorado, it’s scary. I mean, we know that the Colorado is trying to settle some problems there,” Casuga said. “And anybody who has Colorado water is going to be part of that solution.”

The seven states that rely on Colorado River water have been looking at ways to cut usage as the water levels in two major reservoirs have declined and, in recent years, reached record lows. These low levels in the reservoirs have put into question the future of hydroelectric generation as well as other water uses.

Casuga said the MRGCD and others that use San Juan-Chama Project water are expecting that the discussions surrounding the Colorado River could impact them in the future.

That makes it more important for New Mexico and the Middle Valley to pay attention to its compact status and the deliveries it is making to neighboring states, Casuga said. He said it is also important that New Mexico be able to store what is known as native water. The native water refers to water that naturally occurs in the Rio Grande as compared to water that is moved there through the San Juan-Chama Project. Storage of this native water is currently more limited than usual because El Vado Reservoir is undergoing renovations.

“Being able to store native water in northern New Mexico would not only benefit farmers, but it would benefit a lot of the ecosystem work that our partner is doing that we at MRGCD do so that we can divert water for farmers,” Casuga said. “So it really does highlight the need that if we’re going to take some losses on the San Juan-Chama side, we really need to be working hard as a state to get back to being able to store native water, especially when El Vado’s rehabilitated and operational.”

The work at El Vado is anticipated to be completed in 2026, but Casuga said there may be potential for some storage of water by the end of 2025.

At the same time, Casuga said the MRGCD is planning for a future where climate change creates challenges for water systems. He said the district is working to implement conservation programs, especially for farmers.

“That really is focusing on practical things for water delivery,” he said.

That includes things like increasing the efficiency of farm ditches as well as the MRGCD facilities. Casuga said the MRGCD also has some projects for lining channels so that water can be moved from north to south as efficiently as possible.

The MRGCD also has taken steps to create an environmental leasing program that allows the district to have water available to put into what is known as a strategic outfall. These are intended to maintain habitat, including in areas where the Rio Grande has dried up.

“At the end of the day, I do think we’re gonna have to have really tough conversations and hold poor farming practices accountable,” he said. “I don’t think anybody in the valley can afford to be water wasters, whether that’s a municipal purpose or a farming purpose.”

As drought grips the western United States, one crop has come under scrutiny—alfalfa.

Food & Water Watch released a fact sheet this month that states alfalfa consumed 104 billion gallons of water in New Mexico in 2022. That, the organization states, is “enough to supply the entire population of New Mexico with its average water use for more than three years.”

But, Casuga pointed out, there is a reason that farmers have chosen alfalfa. He said alfalfa is relatively inexpensive to grow and does not have the same demands for labor that are seen with crops like chile.

Casuga encouraged New Mexicans, especially those living in the Middle Valley, to learn about the historical conditions of the Rio Grande and how humans have altered the natural flow.

“That river became what it is and what we enjoy today by a lot of human interaction with it. And we built dams, and we built levees, and we protected ourselves from the power of water,” he said. “But that water is now not available. We stopped the big events, the flood events that turn over the bosque and change things around in a positive way. And so if we’re not going to allow nature to take care of it, then we as human beings need to be responsible and do it.”