#Drought news: The #RioGrande is in rough shape this season

Southwest Drought Monitor May 22, 2018.

From Utah Public Radio (Kerry Bringhurst):

A group of western water advocates is focused on finding ways for western communities to work together to protect wildlife and the environment. Drew Beckwith is water policy manager with Western Resource Advocates, a team of scientists, lawyers and economists following drought conditions in the west.

Beckwith said when water managers with the Central Arizona Water Project announced they were going to pull water from Lake Powell to address drought problems in their state, managers from other drought-stricken states responded.

“There were some stern letters that were written from folks in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming,” Beckwith said. “That is sort of how the water community polices itself. There is no real legally binding argument that someone did something wrong. It is almost like a peer pressure and shaming.”

Efforts taken by the Bureau of Reclamation, the seven Colorado River Basin states, along with water districts and Mexico are working to conserve water. Beckwith agrees these voluntary efforts help address the decline of water reserved in Lake Mead. This approach has delayed the onset of reductions to water users in Arizona, Nevada, Mexico and California. But he says it is becoming necessary for all players to create cooperative agreements that will protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell if drought conditions persist.

“Let’s not focus on things that are individualistic that only benefit a few people,” he said. “Lots of different uses are important. We need to get everyone’s views to make sure those are all incorporated.”

Reclamation Commissioner Burman would like drought contingency plans from each state to be in place before the end of this year. She is calling on states, tribes, water districts and non-governmental organizations to work together to meet the needs of over 40 million people who depend on reliable water and power from the Colorado River.

On Tuesday Burman announced the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District in Utah will receive $160,000 to develop a drought contingency plan for its service area in Salt Lake and Utah counties. The district’s service area includes 15 cities and is home to nearly 25 percent of Utah’s population and is expecting rapid population growth due to a healthy economy.

According to the bureau’s Peter Soeth, the district will assemble stakeholders from all sectors to identify projects, actions and partnerships needed to prepare for and reduce water shortages and improve drought resilience for the areas water users.

From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):

“Nobody’s got a whole lot of water,” said David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, whose job is to manage the river water that is delivered to Mr. Rosales and the others through diversion dams, canals and ditches. “If we use it up early in the season and don’t get any rain further on, the whole thing’s going to crash.”

Parts of the state got some much-needed rain this week, which may help Mr. Gensler extend his irrigation water a bit. But whatever happens this spring and summer, the long-term outlook for the river is clouded by climate change.

The Rio Grande is a classic “feast or famine” river, with a dry year or two typically followed by a couple of wet years that allow for recovery. If warming temperatures brought on by greenhouse gas emissions make wet years less wet and dry years even drier, as scientists anticipate, year-to-year recovery will become more difficult.

“The effect of long-term warming is to make it harder to count on snowmelt runoff in wet times,” said David S. Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico. “And it makes the dry times much harder than they used to be.”

With spring runoff about one-sixth of average and more than 90 percent of New Mexico in severe to exceptional drought, conditions here are extreme. Even in wetter years long stretches of the riverbed eventually dry as water is diverted to farmers, but this year the drying began a couple of months earlier than usual. Some people are concerned that it may dry as far as Albuquerque, 75 miles north.

But the state of the Rio Grande reflects a broader trend in the West, where warming temperatures are reducing snowpack and river flows.

A study last year of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people and is far bigger than the Rio Grande, found that flows from 2000 to 2014 were nearly 20 percent below the 20th century average, with about a third of the reduction attributable to human-caused warming. The study suggested that if climate change continued unabated, human-induced warming could eventually reduce Colorado flows by at least an additional one-third this century.

“Both of these rivers are poster children for what climate change is doing to the Southwest,” said Jonathan T. Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan and an author of the Colorado study.

While both the Colorado and the Rio Grande are affected by warming, Dr. Overpeck said, the Rio Grande has also been hurt by declines in winter precipitation. “It’s a one-two punch,” he said.

Last year, though, was a wet one on the Rio Grande, with a strong snowpack in the winter of 2016-17 that allowed the conservancy district to store water in upstream reservoirs. Using that water now should help Mr. Gensler keep the irrigation taps turned for several months.

“In some ways I’m more concerned about 2019 than 2018,” he said. “There’s a possibility we’re going to drain every drop this year, and go into next year with nothing.”

Temperatures in the Southwest increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit (one degree Celsius) from 1901 to 2010, and some climate models forecast a total rise of six degrees or more by the end of this century. As elsewhere in the West, warmer temperatures in winter mean that more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains that feed the Rio Grande.

Dr. Gutzler said spring temperatures have an impact, too, with warmer air causing more snow to turn to vapor and essentially disappear. A longer and warmer growing season also has an effect, Dr. Overpeck said, as plants take up more water, further reducing stream flows.

Running for nearly 1,900 miles, mostly through arid lands, the Rio Grande is one of the longest rivers in the United States. It is also one of the most managed, having been controlled by dams and other structures for most of the last century. But use of the river for irrigation dates back much further: For hundreds of years its water nourished the crops of native Puebloan people and Spanish colonizers.

In a typical year most water in the upper Rio Grande is diverted for irrigation. (Albuquerque, by far the state’s largest city, gets its drinking water from groundwater wells and from a project that diverts water from the Colorado River basin through a tunnel under the Continental Divide.)

By law, some Rio Grande water must also be sent further downstream, to a reservoir that serves farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas. That section of the river, which forms the border with Mexico and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, has its own severe problems, and relies on a Mexican tributary for most of its water.

As the river dries, crews from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service spring into action, working to rescue the Rio Grande silvery minnow, a federally protected endangered species that used to thrive along the full length of the river but now is found only in the upper reaches.

Crews have been rescuing the small fish most springs and summers for about 20 years, running nets through pools that remain as the river dries up and delivering the fish to wetter areas upstream.

Normally the crews would start this work in June, said Thomas P. Archdeacon, a Fish and Wildlife biologist who heads the minnow rescue operation. This year, he said, they made their first rescue on April 2 and have moved northward as stretches of the river dried up.

“I look at it as an umbrella species,” he said of the minnow. “Because it has these federal protections, it’s protecting basically everything along the river.” The Rio Grande is still lined with willows, Russian olive and other vegetation along its banks, and together with the irrigated farmland forms a long, narrow oasis amid an otherwise parched brown landscape.

But much of the riverbed itself is as dry as a bone…

who farms 650 acres near San Antonio, has wells to pump groundwater onto his fields should the irrigation canals dry up and the rains not materialize. “I’m droughtproof,” he said. “When we plant in the spring we don’t even take into consideration how much snowpack or surface water there’s going to be.”

North of Albuquerque, Derrick J. Lente, a member of the Sandia Pueblo, cultivates 150 acres, some of which is pasturage for cows that he raises. Under water laws, farmers in the pueblos would be among the last to lose water.

His ancestors have farmed in this region for hundreds of years, through wet times and dry. But Mr. Lente, who is also a state legislator, recognizes that there is long-term trouble ahead. His father and uncles, who have been farming far longer than him, have seen changes.

“This is the worst they’ve seen it in their lives,” he said. “The times are changing to where it’s hotter.”

Mr. Lente does not have irrigation wells on his farm, but he has made improvements to conserve water, lining some of his irrigation ditches and replacing another with a tunnel.

“I never built it with the idea we won’t ever have water,” he said. “I don’t want to think of that time, I really don’t. We’d have to make some hard decisions.”

The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR

From The Albuquerque Journal (Ollie Reed Jr.):

A map released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor shows that more than 20 percent of New Mexico – scattered areas in the northern part of the state – is in exceptional drought, the most serious category, and more than 99 percent of the state is in some kind of drought. And the dropping of water levels in the Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs forced a restriction on storing additional water in northern New Mexico reservoirs.

To make things grimmer, Fontenot said Thursday that the outlook for the next eight to 14 days is hot and dry.

There is a silvery lining, however. David Gensler, water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the sudden increase in Rio Grande flows caused by the rain this week stimulated spawning among the endangered silvery minnow, as indicated by the number of minnow eggs collected in surveys…

Reservoirs down

“Twenty percent of the state in exceptional drought is pretty high,” Fontenot said. He said New Mexico has not had that degree of exceptional drought since August 2013. But it has been even worse in the past. In a drought that lasted from May 2011 to May 2012, as much as 49 percent of New Mexico was in that category.

Some parts of New Mexico got a lot of rain from a system that moved into the state Monday and lingered into Thursday. A thunderstorm Monday broke a 54-day streak without measurable precipitation in Albuquerque. Albuquerque got 0.12 inch that day, Clayton 0.46, Roswell 0.51, Tucumcari 1.10 inches and Clovis 1.21.

Some areas got more rain in the succeeding days. Fontenot said that on Wednesday up to 6 inches of rain fell within six hours along U.S. 84 in San Miguel and Guadalupe counties…

This week’s rain, as vigorous as it was in some areas, did not stop the water levels in the Elephant Butte Reservoir, five miles north of Truth and Consequences, and Caballo Reservoir, 16 miles south of TorC, from dropping low enough to trigger a Rio Grande Compact provision prohibiting the storage of additional water in upstream reservoirs…

The Conservancy District’s Gensler said the total water in Elephant Butte and Caballo dropped below 400,000 acre-feet Sunday, putting the Article VII restriction into effect for the first time since early this year. An acre-foot is the amount of water necessary to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot.

On Thursday, combined water in the two reservoirs was at about 394,000 acre-feet, Gensler said…

OK for now

Gensler said the Article VII restriction would probably not change much for the irrigators on the 70,000 acres of cropland served by the Conservancy District.

“Opportunities for storage are pretty rare during the summertime anyway,” he said. And he noted that even though Article VII restricts the storage of additional water, it does not prohibit the release of water that had already been in storage. He said that adds up to 107,000 acre-feet in El Vado, Heron and Abiquiu…

Gensler said, however, that things could get really bad if the state is still under the Article VII restriction next spring.

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