Keeping the river and its ecosystems ‘alive enough’ during dry spells

Actor and author Will Rogers once famously described the Rio Grande in the 1930s as “the only river I saw that needed irrigation.”

“That’s kind of what we’re doing,” said Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), as he described how the district is working to ensure water remains flowing in the Rio Grande in what’s shaping up to be one of the driest years for the river in decades.   

The MRGCD is a member of the 2016 Biological Opinion partners, a group of entities that have agreed to manage the river in a way that doesn’t jeopardize three threatened and endangered species that are dependent on the river for survival. Under that framework, the MRGCD helps manage water coming from different sources as it moves through the MRGCD system. Part of that agreement includes putting water back into the river downstream, essentially “irrigating” it. 

RELATED: A river runs dry: Climate change offers opportunity to rethink water management on the Rio Grande

“We have committed to do various things, and one of them is to operate the river in a way to minimize drying,” Hamman said. “We take certain blocks of water, we move them through our system and we put them in at various points downstream of Isleta Diversion Dam, called outfalls.”

Outfalls are channels that divert water. Hamman said there are six different outfalls attached to the MRGCD irrigation system that feeds water back into the Rio Grande. 

This year has been a challenge for everyone who relies on the river: humans, plants and animals alike.

New Mexico grants water rights to keep water in a river

The Office of the State Engineer awarded the state’s first water rights permit to keep water in a river. The office granted the permit to Audubon New Mexico for a stretch of the Gallina River near Abiquiu. Riparian areas, including rivers, streams and wetlands, account for just 1 percent of the New Mexico landscape, and have been stressed by decades of drought and a warming climate. A recent World Resources Institute study ranked New Mexico as the most water-stressed area in the United States. Surface water rights in the state are typically granted to individuals for diverting water from streams and rivers to irrigate crops and support food production.

Giving back to the river, one deal, one drop at a time

Earlier this month, a trickle of water started flowing back into the Rio Grande near the Pueblo of Isleta. It wasn’t runoff from a thunderstorm or storm drain. Rather, it was part of a deal between Audubon New Mexico, local municipalities and The Club at Las Companas to put water in the river for the benefit of the environment. After a poor snow season in the mountains, the Middle Rio Grande started drying in early April, when it should have been running high with snowmelt. As of Thursday, about 30 miles are dry south of Socorro and another mile is dry where the river flows through Isleta. The Rio Grande will never be what it once was decades, nevermind centuries, ago.

Decision due on controversial Gila diversion

SANTA FE, N.M. – Conservation groups fighting a plan to divert large amounts of water from the Gila River in New Mexico say today is the deadline for the federal government to green light the plan. The project would cut a significant amount of water from the river that normally flows into Arizona. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is expected to announce whether funds will be allocated for the project. It would divert some 14,000-acre feet of water annually, and pump it over the Continental Divide to southern New Mexico. Staci Stevens, communications manager for the Audubon New Mexico, says the environmental impact statement and other studies for the project will have to clear some high hurdles.