Water managers prepare for low spring runoff

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are preparing for another year with low spring runoff on the Rio Grande, though they say it is still too early to make reliable predictions. “While we don’t yet know what runoff will look like, we will continue to work closely with the irrigation districts, states, municipalities, Pueblos […]

Water managers prepare for low spring runoff

Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation are preparing for another year with low spring runoff on the Rio Grande, though they say it is still too early to make reliable predictions.

“While we don’t yet know what runoff will look like, we will continue to work closely with the irrigation districts, states, municipalities, Pueblos and all other stakeholders to release water for multiple purposes where possible as this megadrought continues,” Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler said in a press release. “A successful irrigation season and river and ecosystem health are important to all of us, and we use every tool in our toolbox to get the most benefit from New Mexico’s variable water supply.”

The current megadrought is a result of aridification caused by climate change.

Climate change also means that even when there is a good snowpack, there might not be good spring runoff. This is because of a variety of factors, including increased evaporation.

Water managers look at measurements like snow water equivalent, which measures the amount of water that is left when snow melts.

There are various regions that impact flows in the Rio Grande. These include the Rio Chama, Upper Rio Grande basins and the Sangre de Cristos and Jemez mountains.

At the end of February, the snow-water equivalent in the Rio Chama Basin was 90 percent of median and, in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, it was 84 percent of median.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains reported above normal levels of snow with a snow water equivalent of 113 percent of median. The Jemez Mountains also saw good precipitation this winter and, at the end of February, had 121 percent of the median snow water equivalent.

As they continue to monitor river and snowpack conditions, the Bureau and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are preparing their annual operating plans for the Rio Grande and Pecos River. Officials will present the plans to the public on April 18. 

There are a few key locations along the river system that are monitored. One of these that the Bureau highlighted is the inflow into El Vado Reservoir on the Rio Chama north of Albuquerque. The streamflow forecast projects inflow into that reservoir, which is currently under rehabilitation, will be around 46 percent of median during the spring runoff time period, which spans from March to July. In contrast, last year’s flow into El Vado was 177 percent of the median, however the ongoing work prevented storage of water in El Vado.

Because storage in El Vado is not an option, the water that would naturally flow through the Rio Chama will bypass the reservoir and the Bureau of Reclamation plans to time releases of San Juan-Chama Project water to meet irrigators’ needs and support flows adequate for recreation, including rafting during the summer.

Because El Vado is under construction, there is an increased chance that the Rio Grande will experience some drying in the Albuquerque area as it has the past couple of years. Should that happen, the Bureau of Reclamation will coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish and will also work with partners to optimize the use of the limited water supplies.

There is some good news, though. Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is a key water delivery point for the Rio Grande Compact, is currently 25 percent full. At this time last year, the reservoir was about 14 percent full.

That increased water levels allowed earlier releases for irrigation. These releases began on Feb. 15. Meanwhile, irrigation water releases from Caballo Dam, located near Truth or Consequences, are expected to begin this week. 

Caballo Dam and Elephant Butte provide water to farmers in southern New Mexico, west Texas and Mexico.

When releases begin from Caballo Dam, the dry riverbed will quickly become inundated with water. Because of this, officials are warning the public to take caution when near the riverbanks as the flows may be unpredictable, debris-laden and dangerous.

Upstream, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began preparing its system for irrigation season at the end of February and expects to begin delivering water to customers this month.

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