Is the Rio Grande Headed for “Permanent Drought”? — #NewMexico in Depth


From New Mexico In Depth (Laura Paskus):

In the paper, “Western water and climate change,” authors studied four major river basins—the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, the Klamath River and California’s Bay-Delta system—and looked at how each will be affected by climate change.

Of the four, they found that the Rio Grande Basin (which includes the river itself and its tributaries) faces the greatest challenges.

In fact, they cite the Rio Grande as the best example of how continued declines in water flow due to climate change might sink a major river system into “permanent drought.”

That’s in part because all of the river’s waters are already appropriated—or, in use by someone. That means there’s little wriggle-room in the system to deal with shrinking supplies or new demands. And as the climate warms and less surface water is available, those waters—“currently being disputed and wrangled”—will be less and less available in the coming decades.


In New Mexico, water rights are mind-bogglingly complicated. But the simplified version goes something like this: Water in streams and rivers belongs to the public and it’s held in trust by the state. The state grants water rights (which are basically private property rights) to farmers, cities or businesses who prove they can put the water to “beneficial use.” The system was set up in the early 20th century, even before statehood.

Many farmers hold older, more senior water rights, while cities often possess junior rights. The pueblos in the Middle Rio Grande have the oldest and most senior water rights—and the amount of water they actually “own” has never been quantified.

In fact, the entire Middle Rio Grande remains unadjudicated: the state has never officially determined the extent and ownership of water rights in the river.

Currently, the state says it lacks the funding to complete adjudication in the Middle Rio Grande or to incorporate climate projections into the ongoing rewrite of the state’s Water Plan.


Writing in general about the western basins they studied, Dettinger, Udall and Georgakakos write:

Higher flows in the early spring will favor what have been junior and infrequently used storage rights, and senior rights may find less flow on the descending limb of the hydrograph through the summer and fall. In fact, some of the diversions thought in the 20th century to have reliable senior water rights may be without water during the hottest and driest periods of summer.

They also point out that “environmental water” will be in short supply during the driest periods of the summer.


When possible, water managers will try to keep stretches of the Middle Rio Grande wet for rare species, such as the Silvery Minnow, that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. But nearly every year since 1996, stretches have typically dried sometime between June and late October, when farmers are diverting water from the river for irrigation season.

And in southern New Mexico, the Rio Grande stands dry for up to nine months of the year.

The paper isn’t all gloom and doom, however. The authors do have some good news. Sort of.

The challenges and decisions western water managers are facing are not necessarily new.

They write: “The West has already grappled with most of the problems that will face it in the future, however inadequately in some cases and however transformed some will be by larger trends in the future.”

So, what needs to happen?

The task now confronting westerners, they write, is to address those problems that have been acknowledged but not resolved — and to “prepare for the changes that will surely come.”

#Snowpack news: SWE flat-lining, wheres Ullr?

Click on a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of snowpack data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

And below is the West-wide SNOTEL map for today.


The latest “The Current” newsletter is hot off the presses from the Eagle River Watershed Council

Colorado River in Eagle County via the Colorado River District
Colorado River in Eagle County via the Colorado River District

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Progress made during 2015 set to help improve watershed

The Eagle River, its tributaries and streams and the 55 miles of the Colorado River that runs through Eagle County are directly related to our economic wealth. A healthy watershed means a strong tourism economy, the main driver in our area. And it’s not only about the money. The water attracts wildlife — moose, bear, eagles and foxes frequent our waterways. It’s drinking water for our entire
community. It is important that the visitors and residents of Eagle County understand this, and also understand the threats to and condition of our watershed, especially as the population grows. The more each of us knows about the issues affecting our watershed, the more able we are as a community to take steps as needed. At the policy making level, awareness will help our representatives make educated and responsible decisions.

Eagle River
Eagle River

This year was a busy year for Eagle River Watershed Council. One exciting accomplishment was launching new projects on the 55 miles of the Colorado River in Eagle County, each recommended in the 2014 Colorado River Inventory and Assessment. Among these are restoration projects that foster new alliances with the ranching community. Through collaborative efforts with private landowners, federal agencies and other nonprofit organizations, we have improved the health of this stretch of the Colorado River and provided an example of
progressive environmental attitudes toward the watershed.

Gore Creek
Gore Creek

Deserving recognition at year end is the town of Vail for its efforts along Gore Creek. The town of Vail is committed to improving the health of its gold medal stream. In 2015, Vail completed the Gore Creek Water Quality Improvement Plan and has moved forward with the implementation phase of the program. Key components of the plan are to revise land-use regulations, repair damaged sections of the riparian zone and work with Colorado Department of Transportation to improve stormwater runoff systems near Interstate 70. Vail has identified 42 restoration projects and 61 stormwater runoff enhancements. Eagle River Watershed Council is excited to be working with the town of Vail to implement revegetation projects that will serve as examples of beautiful, river-friendly landscaping. The Watershed Council will continue to lead the Urban Runoff Group to create similar action plans for downstream communities.

Eagle Mine
Eagle Mine

While the images from the Gold King Mine Spill shocked us, the reality is that amount of acid mine runoff is spilled into Colorado’s mountain streams every two days from thousands of abandoned mining sites. We’ve seen what the Eagle Mine is capable of doing to our river when left unchecked. In fact, this is where the Watershed Council has its roots. Every minute, 250 gallons of acid mine runoff flow into a water treatment plant in Minturn created solely for the treatment of Eagle Mine water. The plant removes an astounding 251 pounds of metals each day. The Watershed Council’s diligent efforts have held the responsible party accountable and have helped to develop a strategy to prevent a major event like the one in Silverton.

The Basin of Last Resort has been a problem for years. This is the pond on Vail Pass which catches traction sand from I-70 and prevents it from migrating into Black Gore Creek, a tributary to the Gore. The basin has reached a critical level more than once, and the permitting process to remove the sand has been cumbersome in the most bureaucratic sense. The Watershed Council is helping CDOT to design and implement a plan that allows more efficient access to the basin so that it can be cleaned more regularly. This approach will likely not be implemented until 2017, but the end result will be a long-term solution.

The Watershed Council is fortunate to have an incredibly-competent staff, expert consultants and a compassionate board of directors to guide it. But it is the support of the Eagle County community that allows us to succeed; the individuals and businesses who donate, the municipalities, the volunteers. We have a dedicated and reliable group of people who regularly attend our events. We thank you for your continued participation and want to let you know that there is always room for more. Please join us as a volunteer or at our Watershed Wednesday educational series, where we discuss and dissect relevant water topics. Also, if you share our values, then please donate or contact us about aligning your business with the Watershed Council’s Business Partner Program.

Eagle River Basin
Eagle River Basin

2015 Year-In-Review: Tremendous Victories for Rivers — American Rivers

Fog-filled Grand Canyon
Fog-filled Grand Canyon

From The River Blog (Nicole Duarte):

Nationwide, we removed 30 dams and restored 443 miles of rivers through dam removal or re-operation. We safeguarded 140 miles of rivers with new Wild and Scenic designations, and protected more than 447,000 acres of riverside lands…

Colorado River Basin

Focused national attention on development threats to the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon, naming it America’s Most Endangered River® of 2015…

Rivers Of The Northern Rockies

Mobilized more than 10,000 American Rivers members and supporters to contact Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, convincing him to abandon a proposal to build two new dams on the Upper Green River…

Rivers Of Puget Sound And The Columbia Basin

Achieved new Wild and Scenic River designations for more than 50 miles of rivers in Washington state — forever protecting the entire Pratt River as well as stretches of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River and Illabot Creek, a Skagit River tributary.

CIRES: Greenland’s “Sponge” Affected By #ClimateChange

Ice flows in greenland
Ice flows in greenland

Here’s the release from CIRES (Horst Machguth, Dirk Van As, Mike MacFerrin):

A new study of snow and firn layers high on the Greenland ice sheet, published in Nature Climate Change, shows that recent atmospheric warming is changing the ability of near-surface firn layers to store meltwater, which can result in a faster release of runoff from the ice sheet.

“The near-surface of the large ice sheet interior is comprised of snow that is slowly being converted into glacier ice,” explains Horst Machguth from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, who is the lead author of the study. “This porous firn layer can be up to 80 m thick. Earlier research has shown that firn acts like a sponge, and stores meltwater percolating down from the ice sheet surface by refreezing it to form ice layers. But after the Greenland Ice Sheet was hit by a series of warm summers, it was unknown how the firn reacted to exceptional amounts of meltwater. Our research aimed to clarify whether the firn was indeed capable of retaining the meltwater, or whether the sponge had been overwhelmed.”

The scientists drilled several 20 m deep cores to sample the firn, also targeting sites where similar cores had been drilled 15 to 20 years ago. At many locations, a comparison of the new and old cores revealed that the amount of refrozen ice layers in the firn had indeed increased substantially over the past two decades, consistent with the sponge theory. This sponge-like behaviour, however, was not found everywhere. Cores drilled at lower elevations indicated that the recent exceptional meltwater production had only percolated to shallow depths within the firn, aggregating into massive ice layers directly below the ice sheet surface.

“It appears that the firn was overwhelmed by the melt to a degree where so many ice lenses had formed that they started to hinder percolation of further meltwater. Initially small ice lenses grew to form ice layers of several meters in thickness that act as a lid on top of otherwise sponge-like firn. Radar measurements identified that these massive ice lenses were continuous over tens of kilometres,” says Dirk van As, a co-author of the study from the Geological Survey. “Surface meltwater wants to refreeze in firn locally, which it does at higher elevation, but at lower elevations it hits that lid of ice and is forced to stay at the surface where it cumulates.”


Satellite imagery from recent summers shows that the meltwater then formed rivers on the surface that flow towards the margin of the ice sheet. “In contrast to storing meltwater in porous firn, this mechanism increases runoff from the ice sheet,” says CIRES researcher Mike MacFerrin, a second author on the study. “This process has not previously been observed in Greenland. The extent of this ice lid capping the ice sheet firn remains unknown. For this reason, the total amount of additional ice sheet runoff associated with this newly observed process cannot yet be quantified.”

Similar changes in firn structure have been observed on various ice caps in the neighbouring Canadian Arctic, which leads to the conclusion that this phenomenon could be widespread in Greenland. “To investigate this question, we are now combining our core data with remotely sensed radar measurements from NASA, which cover the entire ice sheet and will give us a clearer picture of just how widespread this is,” explains MacFerrin.

More on the web:

Machguth, H., M. MacFerrin, D. van As, J. E. Box, C. Charalampidis, W. Colgan, R. S. Fausto, H. A. J. Meijer, E. Mosley-Thompson and R. S. W. van de Wal (2016), Greenland meltwater storage in firn limited by near-surface ice formation, Nature Climate Change.

A video on the work: An Ice Lid – More Greenland Meltwater into the Oceans