Storage got #NM through this season but everyone knows we need a good snow year for a change

The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

Right now, New Mexico’s largest reservoir is at about three percent capacity, with just 62,573 acre feet of water in storage as of September 20.

Elephant Butte Reservoir’s low levels offer a glimpse of the past, as well as insight into the future. Over the past few decades, southwestern states like New Mexico have on average experienced warmer temperatures, earlier springs and less snowpack in the mountains. And it’s a trend that’s predicted to continue.

“There was no spring runoff this year. We started this year at basically the point we left off at last year,” says Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Elephant Butte Dam, just north of the town of Truth or Consequences. The federal agency runs the Rio Grande Project, which stores water that legally must be delivered downstream to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the state of Texas and Mexico.

Drought has moved around the U.S. Southwest since the late 1990s, and last winter’s dismal snowpack broke records in the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Without runoff this spring, by February reservoir levels around the state—including at Elephant Butte—were as high as they were going to be this year. “We had some help from the monsoons,” Carlson says, “but not as much as we wanted, where we wanted.”

Many spots around New Mexico reveal signs of drought and climate change, whether it’s the puny flows of the Rio Grande, the fire-ravaged forests of the Jemez Mountains or the crispy rangelands of the northeast. But Elephant Butte Reservoir offers perhaps the starkest reminder that keeping up with the changing climate may require questioning long-held ideas of how water is managed and shared, how we think about rivers and reservoirs and even, who we consider our friends or foes.

Farmers ‘dealing with La Nada’

For farmers in southern New Mexico, this year “really stung,” says Gary Esslinger, manager of Elephant Butte Irrigation District, or EBID. This year, he explains, less than 45,000 acre-feet of water flowed via the Rio Grande into Elephant Butte. That’s the lowest recorded inflow since the dam was built in the early 20th century.

“There was virtually no snowpack runoff, and whatever there was didn’t get to Elephant Butte,” he says. “The Middle Rio Grande, that river was drying up way too early.”

Beginning in early April, when the state’s largest river is usually running high with snowmelt, it began to dry south of Socorro and upstream of the reservoir…

Watching the reservoir empty out this year makes farmers feel like they are running out of water, he says. At the same time, they’re uncertain about how long their groundwater supplies will last, even though the district tries to monitor groundwater levels and has hired a full-time groundwater specialist.

“We’re not cratering; it’s not Doomsville yet,” he says. “But we’ve got to find another source.” People can pray for rain and snow, he says, but the challenge is finding a long-term, consistent water source. And western states, including New Mexico, don’t have that.

“Everybody’s thinking, ‘Well, climate change is really happening,’ and I think we need to change the way we’re thinking. We keep looking for improvement in the West,” he says.

With improvement unlikely, Esslinger says he’s started considering more radical solutions—like whether western states could share the cost of a canal that would move water from the East, from someplace like the Mississippi River. “People think I might be crazy, but I think we should start looking at it,” he says. “I don’t think we can continue to keep playing this game of predicting and forecasting: we need to find some water and get it over here to the West.”

Farmers face other challenges, too, including the growing expense of pumping groundwater and an “insurmountable” number of regulations, he says. It’s also hard to find workers to hand-pick crops like chile and onions, thanks to changes in immigration policy.

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