It’s only April and a stretch of the Rio Grande has already dried

In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro. Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that […]

It’s only April and a stretch of the Rio Grande has already dried

In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro.

Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it.

Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.

Speaking to NM Political Report Wednesday night, fish biologist Thomas Archdeacon said the salvage crew already collected about 15,000 silvery minnows within the roughly six miles of dry river on the refuge. Those numbers will start dropping quickly.

Since 1996, the Middle Rio Grande has often dried during the summer, sometimes for stretches of 30, 50 or even 90 miles. But drying in early April is nearly unprecedented in the river’s recorded history.

“We had such a great year last year in the river, and the fish are just going to get whacked this year,” said Archdeacon, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency mandated to enforce the Endangered Species Act. “It’s especially bad this year because the drying is happening before they spawn,” he said. “Some will probably still spawn, but there’s not enough water to create the habitat that the larval fish need.”

Historically one of the river’s most abundant species, the two-inch long silvery minnow lived throughout the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Pecos. By the 1990s, the fish survived only within a 174-mile stretch of the Rio Grande near Albuquerque, and in 1994, was protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the dams and diversions along the river, and delivers water used by cities and farmers. Officials are watching the situation closely.

“The results of this very dry winter are visible up and down the Rio Grande,” said Reclamation’s spokeswoman Mary Carlson, who added that the agency is working with its partners, such as Fish and Wildlife, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Carlson said the agencies are working on a plan to create a pulse of water to help the fish spawn. Later this month, biologists are already scheduled to collect eggs; those they find will be raised in hatcheries.

“Reclamation currently has 11,600 acre-feet of water in storage to supplement the Rio Grande flows,” she said. “With a snowpack that is among the worst on record, we must weigh our options and manage this water in a way where it will provide the most benefit to the Rio Grande ecosystem.”

The Rio Grande’s early drying is just the latest signal that the state’s water problems demand close attention, particularly as the region continues to warm.

Thanks to warm, dry conditions and a lack of snowpack, experts are worried about fire season in New Mexico, which began months earlier than in the past. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also designated 12 counties in New Mexico as primary natural disaster areas due to losses and damages caused by drought. Farmers and ranchers in 15 other counties also qualify for natural disaster assistance programs and loans.

That means all but six of the state’s 33 counties are affected by drought—before planting season has even begun in most areas.

Meanwhile, New Mexico is embroiled in a lawsuit on the Rio Grande over water rights.

In 2013, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump from groundwater wells near the Rio Grande, the state has failed—for decades—to send its legal share of water downstream. In a unanimous opinion last month, the U.S. Supreme Court also allowed the federal government to pursue its claims that New Mexico has harmed its ability to deliver water under the Rio Grande Compact and its international treaty with Mexico.

Were New Mexico to lose against Texas and the federal government, the state could be forced to curtail groundwater pumping and pay damages of a billion dollars or more.

This isn’t the first year Archdeacon has been out in the river channel, seining puddles for the endangered minnows—while having to leave behind carp, red shiners and other fish. Usually, they’re out there in late June or July, before monsoon rains give the river a boost.

This is the earliest his crews have ever done salvage work.

He realizes some people might not care about the survival of the silvery minnow itself. But he says it’s worth remembering that the minnow is an “umbrella species” for the Rio Grande.

“Maybe the minnow’s not that important, but if it weren’t there, it would be dry every year, and we wouldn’t have any of this—it would be like the Salt River in Phoenix,” he said. The Salt River is just one of the southwestern rivers that has dried entirely due to overuse. “By being a protected species, it’s protecting everything else that’s around in the bosque.”

The USGS streamflow gages are available to view online, and include current conditions as well as median daily statistics. We’ve included below information from April 5, 2018 for three stream gages: Otowi, just south of the Colorado border; Alameda Bridge north of Albuquerque; and above the Highway 380 bridge in San Antonio, N.M.

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

The proposed strategic water supply had a rocky road this legislative session that ultimately resulted in it not making it through even one chamber.…
Bill to end detention of immigrants in New Mexico fails soon after new report on poor conditions

Bill to end detention of immigrants in New Mexico fails soon after new report on poor conditions

A bill to prohibit immigration detention in New Mexico failed a few weeks after an organization issued a report regarding the conditions for a…
Supporters of Paid Family and Medical Leave say it will return

Supporters of Paid Family and Medical Leave say it will return

House Speaker Javier Martinez said that the Paid Family and Medical Leave will return to next year’s legislative session. SB 3, sponsored by state…
Utility regulators approves PNM’s transportation electrification program

Utility regulators approves PNM’s transportation electrification program

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously approved a plan from the state’s largest utilities for increasing adoption of electric vehicles this week. The…
Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

The proposed strategic water supply had a rocky road this legislative session that ultimately resulted in it not making it through even one chamber.…
Hearing examiner recommends that PRC reject controversial LNG storage facility

Hearing examiner recommends that PRC reject controversial LNG storage facility

New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Hearing Examiner Anthony Medeiros recommended that the commissioners deny New Mexico Gas Company’s request to build, own and operate…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
Supreme Court censures attorney over conduct in anti-COVID policy suits

Supreme Court censures attorney over conduct in anti-COVID policy suits

The New Mexico State Supreme Court censured a New Mexico attorney because of her “misconduct” in two unsuccessful cases pushing back on COVID-19 regulations…
Guv outlines some health priorities on state spending

Guv outlines some health priorities on state spending

During her state of the state address on Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told legislators that one of her legislative priorities is a request…
Referendum on Edgewood’s anti-abortion ordinance moves forward

Referendum on Edgewood’s anti-abortion ordinance moves forward

The town of Edgewood is moving forward with its ballot referendum on its anti-abortion ordinance at a cost of more than $35,000. The town…
2023 Top Stories #1: Anti-abortion efforts go local

2023 Top Stories #1: Anti-abortion efforts go local

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral…
NM Supreme Court to decide if local anti-abortion ordinances are legal

NM Supreme Court to decide if local anti-abortion ordinances are legal

The New Mexico Supreme Court will decide whether anti-abortion ordinances passed by local governments in eastern New Mexico over the last 13 months can…
AGs want FDA guidance on heavy metals for the baby food industry

AGs want FDA guidance on heavy metals for the baby food industry

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez and a coalition of 19 other attorneys general called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue…
Supporters of Paid Family and Medical Leave say it will return

Supporters of Paid Family and Medical Leave say it will return

House Speaker Javier Martinez said that the Paid Family and Medical Leave will return to next year’s legislative session. SB 3, sponsored by state…
Paid Family Medical Leave bill dies in the final days of the session for a second year in a row

Paid Family Medical Leave bill dies in the final days of the session for a second year in a row

A bill that would have provided paid leave for several weeks died on the House floor when 11 Democrats sided with Republicans to vote…

Bill to require disclosure of use of AI in campaign materials goes to governor

The Senate approved a bill aiming to require the disclosure of the use of artificial intelligence or other changes made by computers to campaign…
House amends, passes bill banning firearms near polling places

House amends, passes bill banning firearms near polling places

The House narrowly approved a bill that would ban firearms near polling places. The House voted 35-34 to pass the bill following an extensive…
Manny Gonzales doesn’t qualify for Senate GOP primary ballot

Manny Gonzales doesn’t qualify for Senate GOP primary ballot

Nella Domenici is the lone Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, after Manny Gonzales III failed to qualify for the ballot. Gonzales did not file…
Utility regulators approves PNM’s transportation electrification program

Utility regulators approves PNM’s transportation electrification program

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission unanimously approved a plan from the state’s largest utilities for increasing adoption of electric vehicles this week. The…
Stansbury talks infrastructure issues at roundtable

Stansbury talks infrastructure issues at roundtable

Democratic U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury discussed infrastructure issues and grants that could help fix those issues during a roundtable discussion at Rio Rancho City…
Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

Questions remain about governor’s strategic water supply proposal

The proposed strategic water supply had a rocky road this legislative session that ultimately resulted in it not making it through even one chamber.…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report