The Colorado River supplies water to seven states, including New Mexico, before crossing the border into Mexico. Then—theoretically, nowadays—it reaches the Sea of Cortez. Demands from cities and farms, along with climate change, strain the river and affect its flows. Now, a new study shows that even though annual precipitation increased slightly between 1916 and 2014, Colorado River flows declined by 16.5 percent during that same time period. That’s thanks, in large part, to “unprecedented basin-wide warming.” Warming reduces snowpack and increases the amount of water plants demand.
All week, we track environment news around the western United States, finding the most important stories and new studies you need to read to understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around New Mexico. Then Thursday morning, you get that news in your Inbox. You can subscribe to that weekly email here. Here’s a snippet of what subscribers read this week: • Changes are afoot with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and they could affect New Mexico workers and communities. This is one of those issues that can make people’s eyes glaze over.
Wednesday night, New Mexico’s largest water utility agreed to sell water to the federal government to boost flows in the Rio Grande through the end of the year. Under the one-time lease, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will pay the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority $2 million for 20,000 acre feet of water stored in Abiquiu Reservoir. The water will be used to keep the river flowing from below Cochiti Dam, through Albuquerque and downstream of the Isleta Diversion Dam. During the meeting, John Stomp, chief operating officer of the water authority, assured board members it has that water to spare. “The reason we’re able to do this is we have managed our supplies really well in the past,” Stomp said.
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.
For the first time since early April, the Middle Rio Grande is flowing continuously. Storms late last week pushed water into the river and its tributaries and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the stretch of the river to Elephant Butte Reservoir is expected to remain continuous for about a week, maybe longer if the state gets more rain. The Rio Puerco, which empties into the Rio Grande north of Socorro, hit over 7,000 cubic feet per second late Thursday night. Those peak storm flows are exciting to watch—whether from the banks or on the USGS stream gage website—but they are temporary. Already, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is down to less than 500 cfs.
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.
Afternoon storms have started spreading across the state, dropping rain, and even causing flooding in some places. After being closed for more than a month, the Santa Fe National Forest opened, with fire restrictions, on Monday morning. Several days of rain, plus higher humidity has forest officials optimistic about monsoon season and the drought outlook. The Carson and Cibola national forests will likely re-open soon, too. Editor’s Note: This story was originally published July 8, but a website error deleted the story.
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.
New Mexico filed its responses to Texas and the federal government on a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit over the waters of the Rio Grande. On Tuesday night, New Mexico Attorney General and its contract attorneys filed the state’s counterclaims on Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado. We’ve posted those three pleadings below. A press release announcing the counterclaims included a quote from Balderas: Our legal strategy will hold Texas and the federal government accountable for the significant amount of precious water being misappropriated that rightfully belongs to New Mexico’s working families and small businesses, and for the federal government not using proper accounting and failing to ensure reasonable water delivery improvements. Using the best science, technology and evidence-based strategy, we will protect our traditionally underserved and culturally diverse population, and protect against those interests that threaten our citizens and businesses.