@USBR: Water Managers Partner to Preserve Middle #RioGrande Flows

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):

In response to ongoing severe drought, the Bureau of Reclamation and partnering water management agencies have reached several agreements intended to keep the Middle Rio Grande wet through the Albuquerque reach for the remainder of this year.

In 2018, Reclamation set aside $2 million to lease water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s San Juan-Chama Project supply to preserve flows through the Middle Rio Grande. Both entities will work closely to ensure continued Rio Grande flows through Albuquerque this summer and fall. San Juan-Chama Project water is diverted across the continental divide from the Colorado River basin. The City of Santa Fe is also partnering on this operation to help mitigate water loss impacts to the Rio Grande near Santa Fe.

“This is an extremely dry year with one of the lowest snowpacks on record,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office Manager Jennifer Faler. “In an effort to effectively balance water needs within the Middle Rio Grande, we’ve joined forces with key water management entities to reach these very important agreements at a critical time.”

Although a historically low spring runoff resulted in some parts of the San Acacia reach drying in the beginning of April, actions taken by the agencies should keep much of the Middle Rio Grande flowing later this summer and fall.

“As water supplies run low in northern reservoirs, it’s important for the public to understand that this agreement is essentially what’s keeping water flowing in the Albuquerque reach of the Rio Grande,” said Trudy E. Jones, Albuquerque City Councilor and Chair of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s governing board.

The leased water will help maintain flows from Cochiti Dam to downstream of Isleta Diversion Dam when the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s irrigation storage is exhausted, which could be late this week or early next week. Reclamation will seek additional funding in 2019 for continued leasing.

The Six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos, which have the most senior water rights in the Middle Valley, are also participating in extending available water supplies. The Pueblos, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Reclamation agreed to use water stored in El Vado Reservoir that would normally be reserved for ensuring a supply for Pueblos to meet district-wide irrigation demands in exchange for a reserved amount of MRGCD’s San Juan-Chama Project water for late season needs.

“Because of the unusually dry conditions, the Pueblos wanted to cooperate with other agencies this year, and agreed to use our senior water rights to stretch available water supplies for everyone, to the greatest extent possible,” said Governor James Richard Bernal, Pueblo of Sandia. “Long-term solutions to water supply shortage issues and protection of senior rights to water need to be identified.”

Releases of San Juan-Chama Project water will supplement the very low natural Rio Grande flow and will include water released to ensure that the Pueblos can continue to irrigate. Without adequate rains, MRGCD will divert required flow to first meet the most senior water users on the lands at Cochiti, Santa Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia, and Isleta Pueblos and then for non-Pueblo irrigators as conditions allow.

“The fact that the agencies and the Pueblos worked so well together to judiciously store and use both Rio Grande and trans basin San Juan-Chama water in a historically dry year speaks to the importance of optimizing reservoir operations and irrigation diversions to extend in-river flows well beyond what the 2018 natural runoff would have provided,” said Mike Hamman, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Audubon New Mexico is also participating in water operations this summer. Audubon has leased 990 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama Project water that is being released from Abiquiu Dam in support of the proposed operations in cooperation with all water management agencies.

From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

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 agreement between the federal government and the water authority notes that the $2 million should be used for implementing the city’s 100-year water plan.

After a poor snow season in the mountains, the Middle Rio Grande started drying in early April, when it normally runs high with snowmelt. Monsoon rains have sporadically revived river flows this summer, but a long stretch still dried from the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge north toward Socorro. The river also dried near the Pueblo of Isleta.

“The Bureau of Reclamation stepped up to the plate, as did Santa Fe and the water authority, and we’re joining forces,” Stomp said. “We’ve all been working together to try to keep the river wet and stave off litigation, take care of endangered species and protect the river—that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, water managers must ensure two rare species, the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, don’t move further toward extinction. In the past, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandated minimum flow requirements through the Albuquerque reach of the river. In 2016, the agency updated its 2003 plan for the silvery minnow. Now instead of following flow requirements, Reclamation is supposed to try to manage the river to improve fish densities.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District will soon be out of irrigation water, and Stomp said MRGCD “did its part” to try and benefit river flows as much as possible this year. And the City of Santa Fe is helping mitigate water losses to the river near the city.

Reclamation spokeswoman Mary Carlson said the Rio Grande would have dried through Albuquerque earlier this summer if everyone hadn’t cooperated.

She said MRGCD and the pueblos coordinated water movement with Reclamation, and she commended efforts by the water authority, too. “This lease agreement between Reclamation and the water authority is a tremendous effort on the part of both parties to keep the Albuquerque reach wet through the rest of this very dry year,” she added.

The water being leased is stored in Abiquiu Reservoir and comes from tributaries of the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River. That water is piped through tunnels to the Chama River, which flows into the Rio Grande in Española. The San Juan-Chama Project was built decades ago, and before Albuquerque built its drinking water project, 110,000 acre-feet of San-Juan Chama water supplemented the native flows of the Rio Grande each year.

MRGCD officials estimate the district will cease regular deliveries to most irrigators within the next week. Most of its stored water in El Vado Lake has been depleted, about two months before the typical end of irrigation season.

Once the lake’s storage reaches a particular threshold, MRGCD will enter “Prior and Paramount Operations,” which means 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. That includes the pueblos of Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta. Because the pueblos preceded any of the valley’s other communities, when Congress passed an act in 1928 supporting the irrigation district’s creation, it noted that the water rights to those pueblo lands are “prior and paramount to any rights of the district.”

MRGCD officials and Reclamation’s Carlson have both noted the pueblos worked to help the district and water managers this year.

In a statement, Pueblo of Sandia Gov. James Richard Bernal also spoke to the need for cooperation this year, and for long-term solutions. “Because of the unusually dry conditions, the Pueblos wanted to cooperate with other agencies this year, and agreed to use our senior water rights to stretch available water supplies for everyone, to the greatest extent possible,” he said. “Long-term solutions to water supply shortage issues and protection of senior rights to water need to be identified.”

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