Drying up our water, parts I & II, the Pagosa Daily Post

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation
New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

From the Pagosa Daily Post (Bill Hudson):

Politicians and engineers began designing plans to divert water from three tributaries of the relatively-unstressed San Juan River, in southern Colorado, into the Rio Grande valley. It took about 40 years to get the plans approved, and in December, 1964, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began construction on the Azotea Tunnel, the primary diversion tunnel that would run from southern Colorado’s stretch of the Navajo River south to Azotea Creek in northern New Mexico.

The project would be called the San Juan-Chama Project, and would eventually allocate about 56 percent of its water — 48,200 acre-feet per year — to the City of Albuquerque. For comparison, the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) delivers about 1,300 acre-feet per year to Archuleta County customers.

Work began on the Blanco River Tunnel in 1966, and the following year, construction was started on Heron Dam, which would impound most of the diverted water for future uses in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and throughout northern New Mexico. The new reservoir was to be named Heron Lake.

The project supplied jobs for some of the men living in the small, economically challenged town of Pagosa Springs, twenty miles to the northwest. I’ve been told that one of the union organizers on the tunnel project was a young man named Ross Aragon.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced the completion of the project in 1978, but budget cuts had greatly reduced the extent of the project, reducing the amount of diverted water in the original project plans by more than 50 percent. Numerous auxiliary diversions that were supposed to deliver water to agricultural users in northern New Mexico never got built.

Heron Lake was one of the completed components, however, and it became not only a water storage reservoir but also a popular recreational boating site and the home of Heron Lake State Park.

And, from Part II:

I believe there are three intriguing aspects to Mr. Fleck’s article. One is his statement that this was the first time in 40 years that the “San Juan Water” had dried up. Another is the fact that he references a federal study warning us that “climate change would mean less reliable [water] supplies from the [San Juan-Chama] project as temperatures warm during the 21st century.”

And the third intriguing feature is the photograph that illustrated the article.

To relate this story properly, we need to view the Albuquerque Journal photo, published on December 29, 2014 and credited to photographer Eddie Moore.

The photo was accompanied by this caption: “Earlier this year, the New Mexico Sailing Club’s marina at Heron Lake was surrounded by grass and weeds due to the low water level of the lake. The lake, 6 miles west of Tierra Amarilla in Rio Arriba County, is the main storage reservoir of the San Juan-Chama Project.”


We humans are often frustrated by failure — such as, for example, the failure of Mother Nature to provide enough water to fill a man-made reservoir that we took all the trouble to build, and to which numerous sailboat owners have become accustomed.

More San Juan River Basin coverage here.

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