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.
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“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.
Albuquerque residents coping with the COVID-19 pandemic have flocked to the Rio Grande this spring and summer in droves, said John Fleck, director of the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico. “What we’re seeing in Albuquerque is stunning. People are in the river in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Fleck told NM Political Report. “People are out wading in the river, splashing around, playing, setting up family picnics on the emerging sand banks.”
That fun may soon come to an abrupt end. For the first time in decades, Albuquerque is facing a dry Rio Grande.
This time last year, the riverbed of the Rio Grande south of Socorro was sandy, the edges of its channel strewn with desiccated fish. Even through Albuquerque, the state’s largest river was flowing at just about 400 cubic feet per second, exposing long sandbars and running just inches deep. This year, the Middle Rio Grande is booming, nearly ten times higher than it was last April—and it’s still rising. Running bank-to-bank, the river’s waters are lapping up over low spots along the bank, nourishing trees and grasses, replenishing groundwater and creating much-needed habitat for young fish and other creatures. This year’s high flows through the Middle Rio Grande come thanks to a mix of natural conditions, like snowpack, and also manipulation of the river’s flows from dams, diversions and interstate water-sharing agreements.
Recent storms packed the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with healthy snow levels, and meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions will persist through the spring. This is welcome news after last year’s dry conditions. But in the long term, forecasters and farmers still remain cautious. That’s because long-term drought has dried out the state’s soils. And reservoirs remain low, particularly on the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Chama River.
For almost a year, drought conditions have gripped New Mexico, dropping lake levels and drying out riverbeds and rangelands alike. Even this summer’s monsoon rains haven’t been enough to alleviate drought conditions or bump up reservoir levels. And while El Niño conditions brew in the Pacific—foretelling wetter conditions for the Southwest later this year—right now, the state’s water situation is dire. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is now notifying farmers that the water it had stored is almost depleted, months before irrigation season’s typical end around Halloween. They can’t predict exactly when the water they have stored in El Vado Lake, on the Chama River in northern New Mexico, will run out.
Irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande will be watching the skies for rain even more closely now. At its board meeting this week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it could soon enter what are called “P&P Operations”—when it can only meet the irrigation needs of about 8,800 acres of pueblo lands, which have the most senior water rights in the valley. The irrigation district had just under 21,000 acre feet of water in upstream storage as of Aug. 9 and estimated that water will be gone within two weeks. Once that stored water is “exhausted,” deliveries to other irrigators will cease until conditions change.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) is curtailing water deliveries to some users and warning people of fire danger in the bosque. The Rio Grande has been running far below normal this spring due to drier-than-normal conditions in the mountains this winter. About 20 miles of the river are currently dry south of Albuquerque. This week, MRGCD told Water Bank participants they can no longer irrigate this spring. The MRGCD delivers water to about 10,000 irrigators across 70,000 acres between Cochiti dam and Elephant Butte Reservoir.
As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for water operations on the Rio Grande. “I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”
Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
This weekend’s warm and windy conditions were good for hiking or kite-flying. But they were tough on a river everyone is already expecting to be low on runoff this spring and summer. According to the National Water and Climate Center’s forecast for the Rio Grande Basin, the water supply outlook for spring and summer remains “dire.” In his monthly email, forecast hydrologist Angus Goodbody noted that while storms did hit the mountains in February, particularly along the headwaters in Colorado, snowpack in some parts of the Sangre de Cristo’s continued to decline. That means the river and its tributaries will receive less runoff than normal this spring and summer—and many areas may reach or break historic low flows. Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that the Rio Grande is swelling over its channel, spreading water into the bosque and nurturing the next generation of cottonwood trees. That overbanking is good for endangered species like the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other more prominent species like cottonwood, said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), which delivers water to farmers and the six pueblos in the valley. “On the other hand, it makes us nervous about the levees,” he said. For more than 40 miles in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the river is up against its levees. And the Rio Grande is still rising.