Grim Forecast for the #RioGrande #snowpack #drought

Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources

From Water Deeply (Laura Paskus):

Water managers in New Mexico will be relying on stored water to meet ecological, agricultural and water supply needs as the runoff from this winter is expected to be notably low.

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 mountains 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.

A new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news. According to the authors, more than 90 percent of snow monitoring sites in the western United States showed declines in snowpack – and 33 percent showed significant declines. The trend is visible during all months, states and climates, they write, but are largest in the spring and in the Pacific states and locations with mild winter climates. To drive home the numbers, they noted the decrease in springtime snow water equivalent – the amount of water in snow – when averaged across the entire western U.S. is 25 to 50 cubic kilometers, or about the volume of water Hoover Dam was built to hold in Lake Mead…

Hard Choices

At the same time, water managers in New Mexico know they’re also in for a tough year.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation watches snowpack and streamflow forecasts closely, said spokeswoman Mary Carlson: “And the current outlook is grim,” she said.

“We are grateful in years like this, when it appears we will have very little runoff from snowmelt, that we are able to rely on the water that has been stored in our reservoirs in previous years,” she said. “Without those reservoirs, conditions on the Rio Grande would be much more extreme in a year like this.”

Reclamation currently has about 12,400 acre-feet of supplemental water in storage, she said, and the agency expects to get another 9,000 to 14,000 acre feet to augment Middle Rio Grande flows.

“We are working with our partners, including our sister agency the Fish and Wildlife Service, to determine when and how to use that water to benefit the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other endangered species in the area,” she said.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

The Rio Grande silvery minnow was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. Two years later, in 1996, about 90 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque dried. Biologists scrambled over the fish, environmental groups sued, political wars waged and water managers tried to figure out how to serve cities and farmers while keeping the fish from going extinct. For 15 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) required water managers to keep at least 100 cubic feet per second of water in the Albuquerque stretch of the river – even if it dried to the south, as it did many years, typically between Las Lunas and the southern boundary of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Then in 2016, FWS pivoted. Under its new biological opinion for the silvery minnow, the agency said water operations in the Middle Rio Grande were not jeopardizing the fish’s survival. It stopped requiring flow minimums and instead expects Reclamation and its partners to manage the river to improve fish densities.

David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the district still has water stored in upstream reservoirs for the valley’s farmers. “But not enough. Reclamation has storage for fish, but not enough,” he said. “[There are] some hard choices facing us.”

Typically, irrigation season runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but due to dry conditions and low soil moisture, this year, the district started its diversions earlier.

Last year dealt water managers a good hand, Gensler said, but this year will be the opposite. And 2018 is shaping up to be similar to that notoriously dry 1996. “I’m optimistic we will all come together and manage through it,” he said.

From Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

The reality of the problems the Rio Grande faces from source to sea is vast:

  • Climate change is predicted to reduce flows in the Rio Grande by 25 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in New Mexico, and over 50 percent in Texas and Mexico in the remainder of this century;
  • A border wall (or series of walls) could destroy connections between countries as well as migratory corridors for rare and beautiful ocelots and jaguars, among other species;
  • A 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande known as “the forgotten reach”, between El Paso and Presido, Texas (or Ojinaga, Mexico), is already channelized and bone-dry year round;
  • Flows in the 75-mile stretch of one of America’s first Wild & Scenic Rivers—the Rio Grande from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to south of Taos, NM—is in danger of disappearing due to unsustainable use in Colorado and implementation of the Rio Grande Compact, especially during dry years;
  • and The lack of flooding and peak flows, as well as the lack of accountability of agricultural water use from the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, threatens to increase ecological damage to one of the largest contiguous cottonwood forests in the world.
  • A cottonwood forest. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division

    There is no doubt the solutions to these problems are complicated and hard, but we can chart a new course for this iconic river.

    [March 14, 2018] is the International Day of Action for Rivers and serves to encourage people from around the world “to lift their voices to demonstrate, educate and celebrate the world’s rivers and those who struggle to protect them.” The Rio Grande is one of the world’s most iconic and endangered international rivers, and to protect the river as a whole, we must join together as neighbors in a basin-wide community.

    We cannot do this by remaining in silos and maximizing the use of the river to benefit a few at the expense of others. We must find ways to build connections that will help restore this once-mighty river. Our vision is to build a River Guardian Network exclusively along the Rio Grande and its tributaries that will serve to defend, protect, and keep the river healthy and safe for this and future generations. Please contact me to learn more or to join forces with us.

    Rivers are a source of kinship and serve to bridge communities both locally and regionally. We may love different sections of this icon, but we are all creatures of the desert southwest. If we connect ourselves, we create hope to reconnect and restore the imperiled Rio Grande we all love.

    Upper Rio Grande River snowpack and precipitation March 1, 2018 via the NRCS Colorado Water Supply Outlook.

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