Farmers Union Canal project gets federal funding: $1.27 million grant will allow replacement of diversion dam and headgates — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

Graphic credit: Rio Grande Headwaters Trust via the Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen webiste (Chris Lopez):

The Farmers Union Canal and Headgate Improvement Project is going forward with a bump in funds from the Department of Interior. The multi-benefit project from the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project, in conjunction with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District and Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, will replace the diversion dam and headgates with new structures that divert water more efficiently and provide increased watershed health benefits, including improved fish and boat passage. 

The old and ailing headgate, which bifurcates the Rio Grande into its north and south channels downstream of Del Norte, is in need of repairs. So a full replacement will be done instead. A new diversion dam and automated headgates will improve ditch operations, reduce maintenance, and protect and preserve the Farmers Union Canal’s full water rights in the future.

The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.

The new diversion dam will include fish and boat passage, connecting aquatic habitat and improving community safety. Adjacent streambank stabilization work will also be done along with the replacement of the headgate. This streambank work will protect the diversion infrastructure, reduce sedimentation in the river, improve water quality for downstream users, and enhance surrounding wildlife habitat. This work will include the installation of rock and root wad structures, along with streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure.

By controlling flows into the North Channel, this irrigation infrastructure delivers water to the Farmers Union Canals’ 140 water users and nine other irrigation ditches, irrigating a combined 42,980 acres. 

The Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project was awarded a $1.27 million grant on Nov. 15 from the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation. Along with 30 other projects across 11 states, the funding is part of President Joe Biden’s Investing in America agenda. Colorado U.S. Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper wrote letters in support of the project.

The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.

“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”

Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Bureau of Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, the Bureau of Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.

The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy, and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.

New Mexico’s #RioGrande Compact debt is likely to grow; El Vado Dam won’t be fixed for a long while yet; we might see a lot more Middle Rio Grande Valley farmers paid next year to fallow — John Fleck (InkStain)

Rio Grande at Albuquerque, November 2023. Photo credit: John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

Finishing the new book has thrown me into a time warp.

We’re about to hand in a manuscript for a book that traces a century and a half of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande, leading up to now. But the now of the act of writing (November 2023) is different from the now that will exist when the book first emerges in 2025, and the now in which readers experience it in the years that follow.

This conceptual muddle is crucial for the book. We are trying to describe the process of becoming that made Albuquerque what it is. That process of becoming, we argue at some length, cannot be understood without understanding how we as a community came together to act collectively to manage our relationship with the river that flows through our midst.

But – and this is the crucial thing, because it explains why we are writing this book – the process of becoming is never done. We hope to help inform Albuquerque’s discussion of what happens next.

There’s less water. What do we do? We will never stop negotiating our complex relationship as a community with the Rio Grande.

I spent a delightful afternoon yesterday that stretched well into the evening, listening to a series of enormously consequential discussions of these issues at the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. One of the district’s senior folks recently pointed out how often, during the most difficult of discussions, they look at me sitting in the audience and see me grinning. Those most difficult discussions are the most fascinating to me.

I found myself leaning forward in my chair frequently, shifting my position to see the faces of the board members and staff as they wrestled with this stuff.

I grinned a lot.

Three things from yesterday’s meeting stood out. All three are things that would have merited a significant newspaper story back in my Albuquerque Journal days. This blog post is not that, but if you’re paying attention to Middle Valley water you should keep an eye out for these three incredibly important developing issues.


The Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to share the waters of the compact’s eponymous river, has a tricky sliding formula determining how much water each state is allowed to consume (through human use as well as riparian evapotranspiration), and how much it must pass to its downstream neighbor. It’s got some wiggle room – states can run a debt, as long as it doesn’t get too large and they catch up in subsequent years. But the changing hydrology of the Middle Valley has made it increasingly difficult for New Mexico to meet its downstream delivery obligations.

New Mexico is currently 93,000 acre feet in debt because of under deliveries in recent years. The hole’s likely to get a lot deeper this year, thanks to a big spring runoff (which increases New Mexico’s required deliveries) and a lousy monsoon (good summer rains can help make up a deficit – this year they did not). If our debt rises above 200,000 acre feet, bad things happen.

El Vado Dam and Reservoir. Photo credit: USBR


El Vado Dam was built in the 1930s to store water for Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigators, allowing storage of spring runoff to stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall. But it’s kinda broken. Contractors working for the US Bureau of Reclamation began work a couple of years ago to fix it, with the expectation that it would take a couple of years. It is now widely understood that it may not be done and in operation again until 2027. Or later.

This would be devastating to the portion of irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that farm for a living. As our book will deeply argue, it’s critical to understand that this represents a minority of irrigated land in the valley. Much of the farming here is non-commercial, “custom and culture” farming, a supplemental income (or even, for the affluent, a delightful money loser) for people whose livelihood doesn’t depend on it. But for either class of irrigators, a lack of late summer and fall water makes things incredibly hard.

El Vado’s problems have not been publicly announced yet, but all the cool kids are talking about them. Expect something more substantive at December’s MRGCD board meeting.

Side channels were excavated by the Bureau of Reclamation along the Rio Grande where it passes through the Rhodes’ property to provide habitat for the endangered silvery minnow. (Dustin Armstrong/U.S. Bureau Of Reclamation)


We could see a substantial expansion of acreage fallowed, with a big chunk of federal money paid to irrigators to forego their water in the next few years. MRGCD has been building the institutional widget to do this for several years, with federal money flowing to irrigators to lay off watering their land for either a partial or full season as part of a federally funded program to generate water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for our beloved Rio Grande silvery minnow. In 2023, that generated (in accounting terms, be skeptical of the four-digit precision) 3,615 acre feet of water.

For 2024, the MRGCD, working with federal money funneled through the state, will push for a dramatic increase. Price per acre will double, to $400 an acre for a split season (irrigate in spring and fall, but not in summer when demand is highest) and $700 an acre for a full season. It’s a voluntary program, so all depends on how much irrigators want to join in, but I can imagine a lot of people looking at the El Vado shitshow and taking the money.

There was a very confusing board discussion that involved an actual invocation of Roberts Rules of Order by the district’s legal counsel and a vote that I still don’t understand with people who support the program voting “no” and people who oppose it (I think) voting “yes”. If I was still a reporter I would have had to sort all of this out while an editor hovered barking about deadlines, but thankfully it’s just a blog that no one actually reads, written by an old guy in pajamas still working on his morning coffee and breakfast.

The bottom line is the possibility of the compensated fallowing of as much as 8,000 acres next year, ~15-ish percent of all irrigated land. I think. As I said it was a pretty confusing thing, and I’m not done with breakfast.

The Rio Grande Basin spans Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Credit: Chas Chamberlin

Biden-Harris Administration Announces $51 Million from Investing in America Agenda for Water Resources and Ecosystem Health — Department of Interior

Click the link to read the release on the Department of Interior website:

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investing in environmental projects to increase water availability

11/15/2023 WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior today announced $51 million from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda for 30 new Environmental Water Resource Projects in 11 states through the Bureau of Reclamation. The collaborative projects focus on water conservation, water management and restoration efforts that will result in significant benefits to ecosystem or watershed health.

“Adequate, resilient and safe water supplies are fundamental to the health, economy and security of every community in our nation,” said Secretary Deb Haaland. “The Interior Department is focused on ensuring that funding through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is going to collaborative projects throughout the West that will benefit the American people.”

As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s commemoration of the two-year anniversary of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Michael Brain announced the selections during a visit to Grand Junction, Colorado, where eight of the selected projects are located.

“These locally led initiatives utilize the investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to demonstrate quantifiable and sustained water savings, all while providing a direct benefit to the surrounding ecosystems,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Brain. “These types of projects and robust cooperation with stakeholders are helping to improve watershed health and increase water reliability and access for families, farmers, and Tribes.”

President Biden’s Investing in America agenda represents the largest investment in climate resilience in the nation’s history and is providing much-needed resources to enhance Western communities’ resilience to drought and climate change. Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Reclamation is investing a total of $8.3 billion over five years for water infrastructure projects, including rural water, water storage, conservation and conveyance, nature-based solutions, dam safety, water purification and reuse, and desalination. Over the first two years of its implementation, Reclamation selected 372 projects to receive almost $2.8 billion.

The WaterSMART program also advances the Justice40 Initiative, part of the Biden-Harris administration’s historic commitment to environmental justice, which aims to ensure 40 percent of the overall benefits of certain climate, clean energy and other federal investments flow to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution.


Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, Surface Water Conservation for Drought and Climate Resilience in the Altar Valley Watershed

Reclamation Funding: $1,213,809         

The Altar Valley Conservation Alliance, in partnership with the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, will use a series of nature-based features in the Altar Wash watershed, southwest of Tucson, Arizona, to slow flows, improve groundwater infiltration, and create surface water habitat for wildlife. The Alliance will install low-tech natural infrastructure in dryland streams facilities across 8,985 acres of the wash, which will slow the runoff, reducing erosion and retaining water in the wash for longer periods. The project will enhance drought and climate change resilience, reduce downstream flood impacts and increase the sustainability of agricultural operations.


San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, Hidden Valley Creek Aquatic and Riparian Habitat Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District will implement the Hidden Valley Creek Aquatic and Riparian Habitat Restoration Project within the Upper Santa Ana River Watershed, a tributary of the Santa Ana River, in southern California. The project will restore and improve the condition of 21.7 acres of degraded aquatic and riparian habitat, including habitat for the threatened Santa Ana Sucker. The district will construct new and restored stream channel, establish a buffer of native riparian vegetation on each side of the stream, and enhance a 1.2 acre floodplain bench. The project will include non-native plant removal and site revegetation efforts. This restoration will improve water quality, increase habitat connectivity, and provide crucial support for recovering endangered and sensitive species.

Uncompahgre River


American Rivers, Inc, Uncompahgre River Multi-Benefit Project

Reclamation Funding: $ 1,198,376        

American Rivers, in partnership with the Ward Water Group and local landowners, will upgrade irrigation infrastructure and enhance aquatic and riparian habitats along one mile of the Uncompahgre River in western, Colorado. The current push-up diversion dam structure has caused channel widening, reduction of aquatic habitat diversity, and a decrease in floodplain connectivity. American Rivers will improve the Ward Irrigation Ditch infrastructure by constructing 2 cross-vane weirs, installing a new concrete stoplog bypass at the headgate, and piping 5,600 linear feet of open irrigation ditches. The project will improve aquatic and riparian habitat within the channel by constructing cross-vane weirs, J-hook vanes, rock vanes, and boulder clusters; revegetating the banks and meanders using willow pole clusters and riparian plant species plugs; and removing invasive vegetation.

Rio Grande through the eastern edge of Alamosa July 5, 2022. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, Farmers Union Multi-Benefit Diversion Infrastructure Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,274,625

The Colorado Rio Grande Restoration Foundation, in partnership with the San Luis Valley Irrigation District, will upgrade the diversion infrastructure for the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch, in southwestern Colorado, to meet agricultural, ecological, recreational, and community needs. The current diversion infrastructure creates a barrier to fish passage, is hazardous for boaters, and requires frequent maintenance. The partners will construct a new diversion structure, incorporating fish passage that will allow fish to access an additional 1.42 river miles of habitat. The project also includes restoration of streambank through the installation of rock and root wad structures and streambed and aquatic habitat through improved sediment transport at the diversion structure. The diversion upgrade will provide safe boat passage and more efficiently deliver water to the Farmers Union Canal and Rio Grande #1 Ditch.

Mancos River in Montezuma County

Mancos Conservation District, Riparian Restoration and Infrastructure Improvements to Better the Ecological Processes of the Mancos Watershed

Reclamation Funding: $2,482,686    

The Mancos Conservation District, in partnership with the Town of Mancos, will implement a multi-benefit project consisting of a suite of infrastructure improvements and nature-based solutions along the Mancos River, a tributary of the San Juan River, in southwestern, Colorado. The partners will upgrade three agricultural diversion structures, install remote metering and telemetry equipment on 10 agricultural pipeline headgates, complete fire mitigation work on 650 upland acres and replace invasive riparian plants with native species adjacent to the Mancos River. The project is downstream of Reclamation’s Jackson Gulch Reservoir and will mitigate wildfire risk to the reservoir and water supplies in the Mancos River Watershed. 

Roan Cliffs Aerial via Rocky Mountain Wild

Middle Colorado Watershed Council, Roan Creek Fish Barrier and Diversion Infrastructure Upgrade

Reclamation Funding: $746,423

The Middle Colorado Watershed Council, working in partnership with Garfield County, will install a fish barrier to prevent non-native fish migration, and upgrade a diversion structure on Roan Creek, in western Colorado. The upper portion of Roan Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River, contains a unique native fish assemblage comprised of Colorado River cutthroat trout, bluehead sucker, Paiute sculpin, and speckled dace. Non-native fish in the Roan Creek watershed harm the river system’s ecology by predating on or hybridizing with the unique native species. Construction of a fish barrier will effectively eliminate the upstream movement of non-native fish to improve Roan Creek’s aquatic and riparian habitat and protect the native fish.

Purgatoire Watershed Partnership, Purgatoire River Fish Passage

Reclamation Funding: $2,403,748

The Purgatoire Watershed Partnership will improve fish passage at the Baca-Picketwire diversion dam on the Purgatoire River in downtown Trinidad, Colorado. The Purgatoire River supports a robust assemblage of fish species and is of local and regional interest for conservation. Currently, ecological function is impaired because the existing concrete diversion dam is not passable to fish. This project will restore fish habitat connectivity and enhance recreation opportunities by adding a low-gradient engineered riffle feature that mimics a natural channel. The upgrade will allow fish access to 3.3 miles of main river, wetlands, 20 miles of Raton Creek, and many stream miles within ephemeral drainages, including approximately 4 miles of Moore’s Canyon and 9 miles of Colorado Canyon. The project is also expected to have flood mitigation, sediment transport, and bank stabilization co-benefits.

Los Pinos River

Southern Ute Tribe, Nannice Canal Diversion and Fish Passage Project

Reclamation Funding: $651,920

The Southern Ute Tribe, in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and The Nature Conservancy, will implement the Nannice Canal Diversion and Fish Passage project on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in southwestern, Colorado. Part of the BIA-owned and operated Pine River Indian Irrigation project that receives water from Reclamation’s Vallecito Dam, the Nannice Canal Diversion is a low-head dam that sweeps across the Los Pinos River and creates a significant fish barrier. Fish get entrained in the Nannice Canal during low flows and during irrigation season. The Southern Ute Water Resources Division will upgrade the diversion structure and install a fish screen and fish ladder. The project will restore river connectivity, improve fish passage, and eliminate fish entrainment during low flows, while continuing to allow the diversion of Nannice Canal’s decreed water.

August, in the Elk Creek valley. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Middle Colorado River Agriculture Collaborative: 4 Fish Passage/ Irrigation Diversion Upgrade Projects on Elk Creek-a tributary to the Colorado River

Reclamation Funding: $2,999,595

Trout Unlimited and the Middle Colorado Agriculture Collaborative will upgrade, relocate, or combine six diversion structures to remove instream barriers to fish passage in the Elk Creek west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. These upgrades will open approximately five miles of aquatic habitat in Elk Creek to fish passage. The project is anticipated to improve stream morphology, increase instream flows, and benefit irrigators by increasing the operational capabilities of the diversions and reducing transmission losses of vital irrigation water.

Agriculture in the U.S. Southwest is at high risk from the impacts of climate change. EcoFlight photo of the North Fork Valley by the Western Slope Conservation Center.

Western Slope Conservation Center, Farmer’s Ditch Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $ 1,594,799

The Western Slope Conservation Center, in partnership with North Fork Farmer’s Ditch Association, located in west-central Colorado, will modernize the Farmers ditch diversion and headgate structures to improve upstream fish passage, increase diversion efficiency, and improve safety for boaters. The project will upgrade the existing concrete headgate structure with a long-lasting alternative headgate that is equipped with remote automation technology, enabling more efficient water deliveries to irrigators while maximizing water that remains in the river. In addition, the Center will install graded riffle and small pools and drops to mimic the natural morphology of the river for approximately 200 feet below the diversion to promote upstream fish passage and allow for safe recreational boating.


Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Protecting Forests for Water Supply Sustainability in Molokai, Hawai’i

Reclamation Funding: $936,892

The state of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Forestry and Wildlife, will expand protection of native landscapes in the north-eastern portion of Molokai, one of the five Hawaiian Islands. Invasive hooved animals, including feral pigs, deer, and goats, are the main threat to Hawai’i’s original forests, negatively impacting water supply, increasing flood risk and land erosion, and threatening several listed species. The project will reduce populations and associated damage to the forest due to these invasive animals through animal control and installation of fencing to exclude them from 3,340 acres within the Pelekunu Valley. The project will also remove hooved animals from an additional 12,000 acres along the north shore of Molokai in an area with steep terrain that is not possible to fence. The island of Molokai relies on ground water for all fresh water needs and is designated as a groundwater management area by Hawai’i’s Commission of Water Resources Management. The forest provides increased water infiltration into the aquifer and reduces soil erosion and associated water quality issues.


City of Pocatello, Rainey Park Stream Restoration and Wetland Creation

Reclamation Funding: $1,635,276

The city of Pocatello, Idaho, will implement a river restoration project on the Portneuf River in downtown Pocatello. The health of the Portneuf River has been severely compromised by flood protection levees and the construction of a concrete channel, which removed hundreds of acres of wetlands when installed. Restoration will be accomplished by moving the river’s existing riprapped levee to an area of city-owned property. A wetland and side channel will be installed adjacent to the levee, along with accessible river access for anglers and floaters. Additionally, a stormwater pond will be installed to capture the first flush of sediment-laden waters from city streets. This project builds on the concepts developed in the 2016 Portneuf River Vision Study and addresses a wide range of environmental goals, including improving hydrologic functions by increasing floodplain, wetland, and riparian habitat areas, and improving water quality.

The Nature Conservancy, Loving Creek Tributaries Restoration and Water Conservation Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,900,217

The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with Idaho Department of Fish and Game and landowners, will complete a suite of nature-based features on four reaches of Loving Creek, located in Blaine County in south central Idaho. The four project locations span the full extent of Loving Creek from its headwaters to the outlet at Silver Creek. Through a combination of in-stream restoration work, sediment removal, and riparian habitat creation, the project will restore 2.75 miles of active stream channel, regenerate riparian and wetland habitat, and remove one fish passage barrier to holistically restore connectivity to 5.72 miles of upstream habitat. The project also will revive upland and agricultural buffer habitat and pipe 1,200 linear feet of open water delivery canal to conserve 9 acre-feet of water, which will remain in Loving Creek as instream flow. Despite improvements in agricultural management and land use practices over the past several decades, water quality and habitat conditions in Silver Creek and its tributaries remain degraded. This project will restore more natural channel morphology, increase habitat complexity, and improve water quality in Loving Creek.

Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District, White Road Passage Project

Reclamation Funding: $367,091

The Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District will improve anadromous fish habitat for Federally listed Steelhead Trout in the Tom Beall Creek watershed, a tributary to Lapwai Creek, located in northern Idaho. The project will improve watershed health within the boundaries of the Reclamation’s Lewiston Orchard Project. The district will replace an existing culvert with a fish passable structure to support the migration of the Steelhead Trout and additional species including Coho and Chinook Salmon. When completed, the project will provide access to approximately two miles of habitat and reduce area flood risk. The project also will improve water quality to downstream recreational and agricultural water users. The project is supported by the Lapwai Creek Ecological Restoration Strategy developed collaboratively with the Nez Perce Tribe, National Marine Fisheries Service, Idaho Department of Transportation, Nez Perce County, city of Lapwai, city of Culdesac, Lewiston Orchards Irrigation District, a landowner advisory group, and several Idaho state government divisions.

Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District, Lower Clearwater Snake Rivers Phase I

Reclamation Funding: $451,889

The Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District will undertake the Lower Clearwater Snake Rivers Phase I Project in Culdesac, Nez Perce, and Lewis Counties, in northwest Idaho. The project will improve watershed health within the boundaries of the Reclamation’s Lewiston Orchard Project. The district will enhance anadromous fish habitat for Federally listed Steelhead Trout and improve overall water quality in the Lower Clearwater River Basin. The district will upgrade a culvert for aquatic organism passage, thin approximately 129 acres of forest to mitigate wildfire risk and install over 100 instream wood structures to enhance over 10,000 feet of stream for juvenile steelhead habitat. The project will yield ecological benefits including improved habitat function, optimized flow timing, increased groundwater recharge, and reduced sedimentation.

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Completion of the Alta Harris Creek Boise River Side Channel and Fish Passage Project Along the Boise River

Reclamation Funding: $734,103

Trout Unlimited, together with the city of Boise, Idaho, will improve aquatic ecology in the Boise River by restoring spawning and rearing habitat for salmonid fishes, and providing fish passage connection between the lower Boise River and Barber Pool, downstream of Reclamation’s Arrowrock Dam. The project will enhance 3,800 feet of existing side channel and include construction of 1,600 feet of new side channel, complete riparian revegetation with native plants, and construct of a fish passage facility at Barber Dam. The fishway design will better accommodate fluctuating river flows and variable water surface elevation. Completion of this project will reconnect 2.5 miles of the main-channel Boise River with 5 acres of adjacent riparian habitat and over a mile of side channel for spawning and rearing of juvenile fish. The project also will allow fish to bypass a half mile of the Boise River with a risk for fish entrainment in water delivery canals.

Wood River Land Trust, Warm Springs Preserve Stream Restoration and Irrigation Improvement Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,733,154

Wood River Land Trust, in partnership with the city of Ketchum, Idaho, will enhance and improve the ecological function of the 65 acre Warm Spring Preserve along the Warms Springs Creek in Blaine County, in central Idaho. Warm Springs Creek in the project area has been artificially confined, concentrating flow, and creating incision and floodplain abandonment. There is virtually no floodplain connectivity within the northern half of the project reach. The project will restore 1.3 miles of Warm Springs Creek through instream earthwork to create pools, point bars, and constructed riffles, and installation of woody debris structures to promote in-channel complexity. The project will also create nine acres of adjacent floodplain habitat by lowering the floodplain. The floodplain restoration will be complemented by revegetation with low-water native plant species along the riparian zones and throughout the preserve, which will collectively aid in improvement of water quality and temperature of Warm Springs Creek.

New Mexico

Chama Peak Land Alliance, Increasing Resiliency in the San Juan-Chama Project Headwaters

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

The Chama Peak Land Alliance will conduct ecological forest thinning on approximately 2,150 acres to protect source watersheds for Reclamation’s San Juan-Chama Project, the Rio Chama headwaters, and the Rio Brazos headwaters from the impacts of future wildfires. Forests in these headwaters are unnaturally dense and homogenous, putting them at risk of severe wildfires and deterioration of watershed function. These watersheds supply crucial drinking water to the cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and numerous tribes, Pueblos, and rural communities throughout New Mexico. In addition to threatening water supply infrastructure, a severe wildfire could cause water quality impairments, flooding erosion and significant degradation of habitat for fish and wildlife.

Pueblo of Isleta, Restoring Watershed Function and Protecting Sacred Ancestral Sites on the lower Rio Puerco, a tributary of the Rio Grande

Reclamation Funding: $2,487,942

The Pueblo of Isleta will build resilience in the lower Rio Puerco watershed by implementing nature-based watershed restoration techniques to restore natural watershed function on an approximately 30,000 acre parcel of the Comanche Ranch and neighboring lands, in central New Mexico. Forming a part of the Pueblo of Isleta lands, the Comanche Ranch comprises over 90,000 acres of public and private lands and is home to upwards of one hundred sacred ancestral sites, including an important cultural site, the Pottery Mound. The ranch forms an integral part of the Rio Puerco lower watershed, the primary source of sediment to the middle Rio Grande and Reclamation’s Elephant Butte Reservoir. The Pueblo and stakeholders have identified that loss of vegetation and increasingly higher energy monsoonal storms that have resulted in erosion and soil loss throughout the uplands in this region and threaten the cultural sites downstream. The Pueblo will utilize a series of watershed restoration practices that spread and slow runoff flows, increase groundwater infiltration, and reduce erosion, including contour plowing with native seed imprinting, contour stone line and brush weir installation to protect plantings and slow runoff, and riparian restoration and revegetation on a section of the Rio Puerco adjacent to Pottery Mound, including the planting of wild medicinal and traditionally gathered edible plants.


Southern Nevada Water Authority, Muddy River Riparian Corridor Improvements at Warm Springs Natural Area

Reclamation Funding: $743,329

The Southern Nevada Water Authority will protect the Warm Springs Natural Area, a 1,250 acre property located in southern Nevada, and downstream habitat from drought impacts. The property is regionally significant as it contains more than 20 perennial springs that form the headwaters of the Muddy River and numerous habitat types. These resources provide habitat for several protected and sensitive species, including the endangered Moapa dace, endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, and threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. The project will widen the riparian corridors along 0.3 miles of the mainstem of the Muddy River and establish mesquite bosques along the corridor, resulting in the creation of 12 acres of new habitat. These actions will increase habitat for listed species, improve hydrologic conditions, lessen wildfire risk, and reduce erosion and sedimentation during flood events. Non-native vegetation will be removed and replaced with native vegetation to restore the area to the natural habitat that existed before the area was converted for agricultural purposes.


Crooked River Watershed Council, Lower Crooked River Riparian, Floodplain, and Habitat Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $1,400,000         

The Crooked River Watershed Council, working in partnership with the Ochoco Irrigation District, will restore habitat and enhance ecological features on two project sites just downstream from Prineville, Oregon. Hydrology in the Crooked River watershed is impacted by upstream Dams, including Reclamation’s Bowman Dam, leading to loss of floodplain continuity, degraded channel structures, and water quality impairments, impacting native Spring Chinook Salmon and Columbia River Steelhead populations that inhabit the watershed. To address these impairments, the Council will strategically place approximately 130 large wood structures to promote habitat complexity, stabilize eroding streambanks on 3,285 linear feet of stream channel, restore approximately 19 acres of floodplain and upland habitat, improve 0.22 acres of alcove habitat, and create 0.42 acres of wetland.

Deschutes Land Trust, Ochoco Preserve Restoration – Phases 2 and 3

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000         

The Deschutes Land Trust, with support from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will restore aquatic, floodplain, and upland habitat across 124 acres on the Ochoco Preserve, located in Crook County, Oregon, adjacent to the city of Prineville. The Crooked River and Ochoco Creek support reintroduced spring Chinook salmon and summer steelhead, as well as a host of other native aquatic species. The waterways frequently experience low flows, elevated summer stream temperatures, and poor water quality. These issues are compounded by a lack of suitable habitats for both fish and terrestrial wildlife, and the impacts to river ecology of Reclamation’s Crooked River Project, including Bowman and Ochoco Dams. The Deschutes Land Trust will lead efforts to create over 2 miles of new main baseflow stream channels, 1.5 miles of side channels, over 11 acres of wetland, and restore 37 acres of floodplain and 75 acres of upland habitat, significantly increasing available habitat for native species.


Menard County Water Control and Improvement District #1, Pipe a 2.5 mile section of the Menard Canal and dedicate 1,100 acre-feet instream

Reclamation Funding: $1,891,500         

Menard County Control and Improvements District #1, in central Texas, will upgrade the Menard Canal irrigation water conveyance system to reduce losses so that more water is kept in the San Saba River for fish and wildlife benefit. A water loss study conducted by U.S. Geological Survey in the summer of 2014 showed that the 6-mile long canal experiences an approximately 50% loss over the first 2.5 miles. The project involves replacing the first 4,000 feet of the unlined Menard Canal with pipe, and re-sloping, reshaping and partially filling the next mile of unlined canal to create a narrower channel profile. Following that narrowed span of canal, the district will pipe an additional 2,000 feet of the canal and install gates to control flow. The district has committed to leaving the majority of the conserved water, 1,100 acre-feet per year instream for a 30 year term. The additional instream flows will contribute significantly to baseflow of the San Saba River and create a more reliable supply of water for downstream aquatic habitat. Sections of the San Saba River downstream from the project that will benefit from the increased flows include critical habitat for the Texas fatmucket and Texas pimpleback mussel species.


The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Lower Yakima River: Anadromous Fish Survival

Reclamation Funding: $2,248,677

The Yakama Nation, in partnership with the Benton County Conservation District, will improve conditions for anadromous fish species in the Prosser, Snively, and Confluence reaches of the lower Yakima River, in central Washington. The project will address two key elements of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan: fish passage and habitat protection and enhancement. The Yakima Nation will complete instream restoration work to expand a cold-water refuge within the Yakima River mainstem at the confluence of Amon Creek, including construction of 1,400 linear feet of cool water channel habitat and restoration of 20 acres of riparian zone through invasive vegetation removal and revegetation with native species. The Yakima Nation will also complete electrofishing and install a fish trap on the Wanawish Dam to remove and prevent reintroduction of invasive predatory fish species that impede the migration of endangered fish species. These improvements will benefit the federally threatened Middle Columbia River steelhead; spring and fall/summer run Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye salmon; and the Yakima population of Pacific lamprey. The project area is downstream of Reclamation’s Yakima Project, which impacts river flows, temperatures, and habitat conditions in this area.

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Yakima River Mile 89.5 Side Channel and Floodplain Restoration

Reclamation Funding: $600,000

The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation will reconnect approximately 9 miles of side channel along the Yakima River within the Yakama Reservation, in south central Washington. Upstream flow regulations tied to Reclamation’s Yakima Project have constricted historical floodplain processes and cut-off side channel access for native fish species, leading to degradation of riparian and wetland habitat areas. The Yakama Nation will excavate five historic side channel sections connecting to the mainstem of the Yakima River, install two constructed logjam inlet structures to ensure fish access to the mainstem of the river, and install three stream ford crossings to access the project site. The excavation of side channels will increase winter and spring off-channel habitat utilized by Middle Columbia River Steelhead and restore hydrologic connectivity to a total of 135 acres of floodplain and wetland habitat. The project is supported by the Yakima Basin Integrated 10-Year Action Plan developed by water and land management stakeholders.

The County of Chelan, Camas Meadows Streamflow and Ecosystem Restoration Project

Reclamation Funding: $468,903

The Chelan County Natural Resource Department, in coordination with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, will restore wet meadow hydrology in Camas Meadows, a unique meadow ecosystem within the steep canyon drainages of north-central Cascade Mountains in Washington. The 1,300 acre meadow flows into Camas Creek, a tributary of Peshastin Creek, in the Wenatchee Watershed. Due to widespread floodplain disconnection and irrigation withdrawals, the Peshastin sub-basin is among the top three flow-limited sub- basins in the Wenatchee Watershed, with chronic low flows and high stream temperatures limiting recovery of ESA-listed steelhead and spring Chinook that reside throughout Peshastin Creek and in the lower reaches of Camas creek. Historic land use practices have resulted in Camas Meadows being confined into ditch-like channels with incision ranging from 4 feet to 8 feet, causing rapid and early drying of the meadow. This projectwill restore the natural hydrology of the meadow by replacing the meadow outlet culvert, re-grading the channel and meadow elevations, installing channel-spanning habitat log structures, and re-planting with native shrubs and plants. The project will restore floodplain connectivity and wet meadow hydrology for a modeled additional water storage of 180 acre-feet and an anticipated year-round baseflow contribution of 0.2 cfs.

Kittitas Conservation Trust, Gold Creek Restoration Phase 2 RM 2-3 Implementation

Reclamation Funding: $2,475,000

Kittitas Conservation Trust will implement an in-stream restoration project on river mile 2-3 of Gold Creek, in Kittitas County, Washington. Located just east of Snoqualmie Pass in Kittitas County, Washington, Gold Creek is the headwaters of the upper Yakima River and flows for approximately 8 miles from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into Keechelus Reservoir in the Central Cascade Mountains. Upstream fish passage is blocked at Reclamation’s Keechelus Dam on the downstream end of the reservoir. Prolonged dewatering conditions and a century’s worth of anthropogenic channel widening have dramatically impacted the habitat and health of the creek’s Federally threatened Bull Trout. The Trust will install a total of 28 large woody debris structures along the river mile. The instream wood replenishment will create habitat complexity, including deeper pools with shaded cover, provide relief from high velocity flood flows, and ensure optimal habitat for both the successful rearing of juvenile Bull Trout and migration of mature fish. The project also will provide floodplain reconnection, which will improve groundwater recharge from flood flows, and reduce the likelihood of future flood events further harming the channel morphology.

Kittitas Reclamation District, Kittitas Reclamation District – South Branch Piping

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000         

The Kittitas Reclamation District, located in central Washington, will restore in-stream flows and provide benefits to fish and wildlife in Mantash Creek, an over-appropriated tributary of the Yakima River. The project will involve the piping of a 2,656 linear feet section of the currently unlined South Branch Canal, which is part of Reclamation’s Yakima Project. Once piped, the district anticipates conserving approximately 385 acre-feet per year currently lost to seepage. The district will designate this otherwise lost water through an allocation, management, and protection agreement, that involves careful monitoring of stream flow on Mantash Creek to maintain optimal conditions for Yakima Basin fish species, including Coho and Chinook Salmon, Mid-Columbia Steelhead, and Bull Trout. The Washington State Department of Ecology is responsible for water protection and enforcement and will ensure that conserved water stays instream.


City of Casper, North Platte River Restoration — Izaak Walton Reach

Reclamation Funding: $3,000,000

The city of Casper, in collaboration with members of the Platte River Revival Committee, will complete a river and riparian restoration project on the Izaak Walton reach of the North Platte River in Natrona County, Wyoming. The North Platte River is a Blue Ribbon trout fishery, but this reach suffers from significant bank erosion, tight riverbend geometry, a lack of riffle-pool complex development, poor bedform complexity, meager floodplain connectivity, and is characterized by a low quality riparian vegetation community. These conditions have resulted in degraded habitat for trout as well as native aquatic and terrestrial species. These characteristics have also contributed to reduced ecological function, adversely affected the regional municipal water supply, degraded aesthetic values, and impaired river recreation. The city of Casper will restore over 5,150 linear feet of the North Platte River that will involve regrading of the riverbed, banks, and floodplain to create appropriate geometry and bedform complexity, reduce riverbank degradation, and improve instream and riparian habitats.

Trout Unlimited, Inc, Sage Creek Watershed Restoration for Drought Resilience and Sediment Control

Reclamation Funding: $1,513,538

Trout Unlimited, working in partnership with Wyoming Game and Fish, will complete a multi-part restoration project, including nature-based features, in the Sage Creek Watershed, located in southwestern Wyoming. The project will involve the installation of 50 beaver dam analogs, 160 aggradation structures, and an aquatic invasive species barrier along a 5.6 mile stretch of Sage Creek. These installations will be complemented by a robust invasive plant removal and native riparian reseeding along 7.6 miles of both the Sage and Trout Creeks. Together, these actions are estimated to restore 453 acres of valley floor habitat and protect 79.5 linear miles of aquatic habitat from invasive trout that inhabit Reclamation’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir just downstream of the project site. The project is additionally expected to reduce channel incision and erosion to reduce sediment and nutrient delivery to Flaming Gorge Reservoir, protect native trout from hybridization, and increase groundwater recharge and surface water availability.

Backer of #SanLuisValley water plan, state water buff chosen for board on Douglas County’s water future — The Douglas County News-Press #RioGrande

Rueter-Hess Dam before first fill. Photo credit: Parker Water & Sanitation

Click the link to read the article on the Douglas County News-Press website (Ellis Arnold). Here’s an excerpt:

Months of discussion on who will help decide the future of water supply in Douglas County have come to an end now that county leaders have chosen 11 members of a new volunteer board…The forming of the new volunteer board — the Douglas County Water Commission — comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley in the southern part of the state…Last year, county leaders Abe Laydon and Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while elected leader George Teal has continued to support it. [Sean] Tonner, one of the principals of Renewable Water Resources, attracted news media attention for throwing his hat in the ring to serve on the water commission…The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county…The main members of the water commission, named on Nov. 6, include the following.

Representing District I, or northeast Douglas County:

• James Eklund, who had worked on the state’s water plan, according to county staff.(Removing the requirement for being a landowner or a resident of Douglas County allowed for choosing Eklund, who told county leaders he is “in the city and county of Denver.”)

• Jack Hilbert, formerly one of Douglas County’s elected leaders.

• Donald Langley, who serves on the Parker Water board.

Representing District II, including central and south Douglas County:

• Clark Hammelman, a former Castle Rock town councilmember.

• James Maras, a Perry Park Water and Sanitation District board member.

• Roger Hudson, a Castle Pines city councilmember.

Representing District III, or northwest Douglas County:

• Frank Johns, who said he has worked on various water plans for communities over the years. Johns serves on the board of the Centennial Water and Sanitation District, which serves Highlands Ranch.

• Evan Ela, a longtime water attorney.

• Harold Smethills, a member of the Dominion Water and Sanitation District board and a developer of the Sterling Ranch area in northwest Douglas County.

Appointees “at large,” meaning from the county as a whole, include Tonner and Tricia Bernhardt, who has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Colorado State University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and management from the University of Denver, according to a LinkedIn page.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

#Colorado sends too much #RioGrande water downstream — @AlamosaCitizen

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):

Colorado figures it over-delivered on the Rio Grande Compact this year by 10,000 to 15,000 acre-feet and as such extended the irrigation season for some Valley farmers to Nov. 8. The over delivery on Rio Grande Compact water is another reason why the Rio Grande has so little flow this fall and likely won’t pick up without some natural moisture. “It’s probably not going to happen for any time soon because we are actually over-delivered on our compact obligations,” said Craig Cotten, division engineer in the San Luis Valley for the Colorado Division of Water Resources. “We will have delivered a little bit too much to downstream states.” Cotten made the comments during a taping last week of The Outdoor Citizen podcast hosted by Marty Jones. You can hear his full remarks on the over delivery of Rio Grande Compact water in this episode of The Outdoor Citizen.

#NewMexico’s Largest Fire Wrecked This City’s Water Source: Era of megafires endangers #water supplies in American West — Circle of Blue

Hermit’s Peak Fire scar. Photo credit: Circle of Blue

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website (Brett Walton):

October 25, 2023

LAS VEGAS, New Mexico — The largest fire in New Mexico history began with a disastrous government agency blunder. Its consequences for land and a small northern New Mexico city’s water were magnified by man-made climate change. 

In the first week of April 2022, the U.S. Forest Service was setting a controlled burn in Santa Fe National Forest near the rocky promontory of Hermit’s Peak. A tool to thin overgrown forests, prescribed fires are intended to reduce the risk of hundred-thousand-acre megafires that have recently incinerated the American West.

Fanned by shifting winds blowing across dry timber, the deliberately ignited flames jumped containment lines. Then a dormant fire in nearby Calf Canyon reignited and merged with the blaze beneath Hermit’s Peak. Combined, the fire grew into an uncontrolled juggernaut that burned 341,735 acres of public and private land over four months.

But the collision between government error and climate change that produced a colossal fire disaster in the forests of northern New Mexico didn’t end once the flames were extinguished. The fire was a prelude to a water supply emergency that the city of Las Vegas still reckons with.

New Mexico Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources via

The fire burned the upper reaches of the Gallinas River watershed, the drinking water source for more than 17,000 people in and around Las Vegas. The fire had plenty of fuel — the watershed hadn’t had a major burn in more than a century. Ash and sediment flushed into the river from the bald slopes of the burn scar are undeniable threats to the city’s water treatment system.

By the end of August 2022, amid heavy monsoon rains, Las Vegas had a full-blown menace: a deteriorating river and just 21 days of water remaining in storage.

The trials of Las Vegas in the last year and a half are a sharp illustration of climate vulnerability in the American West, the domino effect of climate disasters, and the cost to taxpayers of repairing the damage. Similar cautionary tales dot the region’s map. Fires in recent years have destroyed water systems in Superior, Colorado; Detroit, Oregon; Malden, Washington; and in the California locales of Paradise, Santa Rosa, and the San Lorenzo Valley. 

The risk of high-severity fire is growing due to decades of fire suppression combined with a warming planet. A fuels buildup is being conditioned to burn. As the number of burned acres trends upwards, the U.S. Forest Service expects one-third of western U.S. watersheds to experience a doubling of post-fire sediment flows in rivers by mid-century. Towns downstream of flammable terrain are a lightning strike or undoused campfire away from being unable to provide reliable water service.

The seat of San Miguel County, Las Vegas is one of the poorest municipalities in one of the country’s poorest states. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire so damaged the Gallinas watershed – charring the soil and increasing the sediment load in streams – that the drinking water treatment system cannot keep up. It must be replaced. 

Unable to afford such a large expense on its own, Las Vegas turned to Congress. Lawmakers were willing to open the public purse due to the federal government’s role in causing the disaster. The Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon Fire Assistance Act was included in a short-term budget extension that President Biden signed on September 30, 2022. It offered $2.5 billion to compensate property owners for fire damage. The final 2023 budget bill added $1.45 billion to the pot, bringing the total federal assistance for injuries and property losses to $3.95 billion. That includes $140 million to replace water treatment facilities damaged by the fire.

Las Vegas intends a complete overhaul: a new water treatment plant, equipment to remove sediment from river water before it enters the treatment facility, and a system to purify wastewater to reuse as drinking water. Full build-out might take seven years, but when all the pieces are in place it will be the largest capital project in the city’s history.

“It’s huge,” Mayor Louie Trujillo told Circle of Blue about the federal assistance. “We could have never done it. We don’t have the budget.”

The muddy Gallinas River just downstream from the water intake for Las Vegas, New Mexico. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

A Chaotic Period

As soon as the fire started, Maria Gilvarry knew that her city’s water supply was in jeopardy.

“The watershed is our water system,” Gilvarry, the Las Vegas Utilities Department director, told Circle of Blue. “So the more of the watershed that burns, the more that impacts our ability to treat and provide water.”

Even as the forests above Las Vegas smoldered, monsoon rains pummeled the burn scar last summer, delivering huge slugs of soil and debris into the Gallinas River. “It was just day after day of brown and black water,” Gilvarry recalled. The sediment load was too thick for the 1970s-era treatment facility. Two of the city’s three reservoirs were incapacitated by the muck.

Forests are on the frontlines of climate disasters. Hotter temperatures are a hair dryer pointed at mountain slopes that bristle with dense stands of trees and understory growth.

Because forests provide a disproportionately large share of the nation’s drinking water, what happens in the woods doesn’t stay in the woods. Though forests are water sources in eastern ranges like the Appalachians and Catskills, the water-forest-fire relationship is especially acute in the drying American West. 

According to U.S. Forest Service research, national forests in the western states account for just 19 percent of the land area. But they contribute 46 percent of the surface water supply. [ed. emphasis mine]

Amanda Hohner, an assistant professor at Montana State University, has spent a decade studying the effect of wildfire on municipal water systems. She says the places most vulnerable to wildfire contamination of drinking water sources share several characteristics. They are small systems with a single, surface water source — usually a river or lake. Who fits that description? The city of Las Vegas, for one.

Las Vegas has a backup groundwater well for emergencies. But Gilvarry said that mechanical problems kept it offline last summer. When the fire started, the Gallinas River was the only option.

It was a chaotic, high-stress period. Evacuated from her property, Gilvarry was running the utility department while staying in a trailer on a co-worker’s property. Her husband volunteered to fight the fire.

The utility crew shifted to round-the-clock operations at the water treatment plant, watching nervously as the fire approached — but never overran — the facility.

“Young staff members could look out and see flames,” Gilvarry said. “And, you know, they wanted to go home with their families at night. So part of my job was to counsel them and keep them safe, while also keeping water flowing for the community. And they did it — those employees were awesome.”

After the fire threat subsided, the task did not get easier. The Army Corps of Engineers installed 10-foot-tall steel Geobrugg netting across side canyons to catch large trees and boulders. The U.S. Geological Survey ramped up its stream monitoring. Straw-filled wattles, rock-filled gabions, berms, and barricades were deployed to prevent ash and sediment from entering the Gallinas. And yet it was not enough. Monsoon rains were severe, and sediment spiked. 

Trujillo and Gilvarry said that Las Vegas made it through the emergency period by focusing on conservation until a temporary state-funded sediment removal system could be installed at Storrie Lake, one of the storage reservoirs. Water department staff talked with restaurants and laundries. They asked car washes to voluntarily shut down. They identified pipe leaks and sealed them. Water was brought in via truck and bottle. Trujillo made frequent appearances on radio, in town hall meetings, at the senior center, at the community college.

“The citizens were ready to help us and they did,” Trujillo said.

After the Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire, booms and other structures were deployed in and around the Gallinas River to trap large debris and sediment. Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

‘A Marathon, Not a Sprint’

High-intensity fires do more than scorch trees and destroy homes. They upend the ecological function of entire watersheds. Burned forests become riddled with impairments. Shorn of trees, the land sheds more water than before. Though more water flows downstream, the costs of megafire outweigh this benefit. Without the forest buffer, floods are more destructive and more common. The land erodes easily. More nutrients are flushed downstream. 

For these reasons, the conservation groups American Rivers named the Gallinas one of the country’s most endangered rivers for 2023.

“The recovery of wildfire can be a little bit different from other natural disasters, in that the impacts can be cascading,” explained Madelene McDonald, a water scientist with Denver’s drinking water utility, which has also contended with the ripple effects of wildfires. “They’re not necessarily all at once, but it’s those repetitive storm events that can cause the greatest impact.”

Subsequent rains following the Hayman Fire in 2002 led to erosion problems and silt buildup in the creeks surrounding the Cheesman Reservoir. Photo credit: Denver Water

It happens again and again in the western states. Nitrogen levels in Colorado streams spiked immediately after the 2002 Hayman fire and remained elevated for more than a decade. Nitrogen is a plant vitamin that feeds lake-befouling algal blooms. And that’s not the only contaminant. Carbon, organic matter, heavy metals, and sediment — all accumulate in post-fire streams.

These chemical and physical changes to land and water are impairments that Gilvarry and her staff will face for years. More organic matter in the river can interfere with drinking water treatment. Disinfection chemicals like chlorine can produce toxic byproducts when too much carbon is in the source water. Sediment also clogs reservoirs and reduces water storage capacity.

The risks for Las Vegas were not unknown. The 1994 Gallinas River Watershed Plan, a joint effort with the city, U.S. Forest Service, and Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District, noted the need to reduce the fuel load in the watershed. The Viveash fire, in year 2000, burned mostly in the adjacent Cow Creek drainage. But some 820 acres of high-intensity fire did creep into the Gallinas watershed.

“A fire of Viveash’s magnitude occurring completely in the Gallinas Watershed would be disastrous for those who depend on Las Vegas’ water quality,” according to a March 2006 environmental assessment of prescribed fire that was prepared by the Santa Fe National Forest. That is exactly what happened with Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon.

Though the summer of 2022 was a nightmare, the summer of 2023, in terms of water quality, was much better. Monsoon rains were a trickle, not a flood. Sediment levels have been manageable. All three reservoirs are functioning again.

A bright spot for Gilvarry is that Las Vegas itself did not burn. That means there are no contaminants to flush from drinking water pipes. Cities in California, Colorado, and Oregon had to deal with benzene and other volatile chemicals in their water distribution systems after fires burned within city limits.

Slopes above Cheesman Reservoir after the Hayman fire photo credit Denver Water.

Denver’s experience with wildfire is a template for Las Vegas’s future. Both the Hayman fire and the 1996 Buffalo Creek fire burned the watersheds above Strontia Springs reservoir, a storage facility through which 80 percent of Denver’s drinking water passes. Denver Water is still planting trees in the burn scar. Even today, more than two decades after the fires, McDonald sees sediment levels in the reservoir climb after heavy rain.

“Recovery really is a marathon and not a sprint,” McDonald said.

How can communities like Las Vegas better prepare for the race? McDonald is part of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, a group of more than 50 national and regional fire experts tasked by Congress to recommend policy solutions to the wildfire crisis.

In September the commission submitted its report. Among its many recommendations are five specific to drinking water. In essence, they focus on prevention and response. Before a fire, utilities need to map their vulnerabilities and reduce fire risk in their watersheds by thinning and incorporating low-intensity burns. Risk assessments could identify utilities in need of water infrastructure upgrades – those like Las Vegas that have a sole surface water source or do not have the equipment to handle higher sediment levels. Portland, Oregon, for instance, is building a $1.48 billion water filtration plant, scheduled for completion in 2027, that will filter sediment from post-wildfire erosion in its forested Bull Run watershed.

Congress also has a role, the commission argues. Lawmakers could authorize grant funding for these assessments and amend existing forest restoration programs so that they explicitly target funds to areas with critical sources of drinking water, even though those areas may be far from where people live. Lawmakers could expand the timeline for disaster-relief funding, acknowledging that fire can harm water quality for years.

Gilvarry points to funding as a major obstacle to protecting water for smaller, low-income areas. Even if they are aware of the risks, can they bear the adaptation costs? “For the community to have built a top-of-the-line system ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago to plan for this would have been multi-million dollars, but it would have come from the residents here,” Gilvarry said. “And I don’t think the residents could have afforded that.”

There are targeted research approaches, too. The Wildfire and Water Security project is investigating how drinking water systems can become more resilient to wildfire. Led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station along with academic partners at Montana State, Oregon State, and Washington State, the initiative is considering water treatment options, water quality after fires, and the economic implications of fire damage and risk-reduction costs.

At the state level, the Colorado Water Conservation Board assessed the vulnerability of drinking water infrastructure in the state to wildfire damage. Called Wildfire Ready Watersheds, the program is intended to enable community-level preparation before a fire.

Critical to the effort is the U.S. Forest Service. Armed with $3.5 billion from the two-year-old Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to prepare communities for wildfire, the land management agency has adopted a “fireshed” approach in responding to the wildfire crisis. Firesheds are forest and rangeland units of roughly 250,000 acres that, if wildfire erupted, could damage homes, watersheds, water supplies, utility lines, and other critical infrastructure.

The U.S. Forest Service did not make any staff available for an interview. “The agency collaborates in the development and implementation of source water protection plans,” the press office wrote to Circle of Blue in an email. “In many places, we have agreements with local municipalities on how activities in the municipal watershed will be carried out to ensure the drinking water supply is protected; some of these agreements go back decades.”

A year after being pushed to the brink, Las Vegas residents celebrated the return of the People’s Faire, a community arts festival held on August 26 that had been absent for three years due to Covid and the fire.

Food and crafts vendors lined the sun-dappled lawn in front of the Monticello-inspired Carnegie Library, while children plotted their moves on a giant chess board.

Trujillo, in sunglasses and a stylish floral shirt, acted as unofficial host, greeting nearly everyone who passed by. For a moment, on a warm late-summer day, the water emergency was a memory and all was right in Las Vegas.

“It’s nice that we have all this,” an older woman told him. 

Her friend, who was shopping for Christmas presents, agreed. “When I lived in Oregon, we didn’t have the parades,” she said. “We didn’t have all this stuff that we have here. So it is nice. This little town does a lot.”

This article was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

Louie Trujillo is the mayor of Las Vegas. “It was couldn’t have happened at a worst time,” Trujillo said about the fire. “We were just surfacing from Covid. And then the fire broke out and then as a result of the fire, of course, it caused a water crisis in our community.” Photo © Brett Walton/Circle of Blue

Lobatos Bridge at the intersection of history, recreation — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

One of Colorado’s oldest areas sees renewed interest

Acouple of years back there was a post on Facebook that identified locations of petroglyphs which exist in eastern Conejos County and western Costilla County, near historic Lobatos Bridge.

Vandals took notice and defaced the ancient carvings, and in turn heightened the concern among local land managers and residents who talk about the Facebook episode and fear too much public exposure to one of Colorado’s oldest areas could have a detrimental effect on preserving the cultural heritage of the southern end of the San Luis Valley.

Rio Grande. Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

The Lobatos Bridge corridor has more than 10,000 years of human occupation and heritage to it, and serves as a gateway for the Rio Grande as it flows into northern New Mexico and then south into El Paso, Texas. It’s the Pass of the North, El Paso del Norte, that is considered the cradle of civilization of the Southwest United States. People followed the Rio Grande north, including into the San Luis Valley.

The traces of history are strong in the southern end of the San Luis Valley, and any efforts to bring attention to the favorite fishing holes and hunting grounds for generations of families is frowned upon and can be met with unfortunate displeasure.

It is with this understanding that two efforts are underway to carefully and thoughtfully showcase the public land corridors of the Lobatos Bridge and the Rio Grande Natural Area. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is moving forward on creating the Lobatos Bridge Recreation & Interpretive area to showcase its history and to provide boat access and other recreational opportunities on the Rio Grande at Lobatos Bridge. BLM officials, along with champions of the project which include the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and San Luis Valley Great Outdoors, met this month with residents of Conejos County to update them on a timeline for an educational outdoor classroom and public recreation in place come late 2024. Key to the timeline is an upcoming decision from Great Outdoors Colorado to provide grant funding.

A separate push is underway in Conejos County to revive the idea of connecting the Rio Grande corridor for recreational purposes from the Alamosa Wildlife Refuge through the Lobatos Bridge passageway and into northern New Mexico and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos. It’s a conversation fraught with lessons learned from the last time the idea of creating a national monument area between the two states and along the Rio Grande was tried and met with distrust.

Both the Lobatos Bridge recreational and educational area and the idea of establishing either a national conservation area designation or national monument designation for the Rio Grande corridor into New Mexico are considered potential boons for Conejos County and its efforts to expand its recreational footprint and the potential for more discovery of the historic landmarks among tourists.

Casting an imposing shadow over all of it is one Ken Salazar, currently the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and former U.S. senator, former U.S. secretary of the interior, former Colorado attorney general, and always a Valley native who touts his roots. His name came up at the BLM meeting on Lobato Bridge and is on the minds of local organizers working on a Rio Grande national conservation area designation. It’s both his love for his homeland and his concern for the local Conejos County economy that continues to hold his interest and help spur efforts forward, according to those who stay in touch.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

History behind the projects

Sean Noonan, the outdoor recreation planner for BLM’s field office in the San Luis Valley, provided Conejos County meeting attendees in September with the history of the Lobatos Bridge project and why now. He took the crowd back to the late 1970s and how BLM came to swap land with a local property owner to gain control of the Lobatos Bridge area, and then the years of efforts to put in place a wild and scenic river designation for the Rio Grande area from the Valley into New Mexico.

It was during the process of the wild and scenic river designation debate that the federal government’s master planning fell off track due to its efforts to secure a guarantee of a federal water right along the Rio Grande, which raised the ire of local irrigators. Once heads cooled and the federal government backed off the guaranteed water rights concept, the designation became official. Now BLM talks about the recreation and heritage corridor at Lobatos Bridge as a way to keep history alive.

“It starts with millions of years of geology and the river that runs through it, and all the plants and animals, and all the people that have come up that river since time and memorial and the centuries of history that are literally scratched into the walls of the canyon and are still in existence from the recent past till today,” Noonan told the audience at the recent Conejos County meeting held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Hall.

“That’s really the goal of this project,” he said, “to help tell that story and to continue to provide the access to the river to the public and to experience the river and to experience the landscape and to become ingrained in all of that heritage that many of you really carry in your blood.”

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective
Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Should the GOCO funding come through, there is expectation that the Lobatos Bridge Recreation & Interpretive Education project will break ground in spring 2024. Local architect and designer Kelly Ortiz is hard at work building the storyboards for the educational area and actively seeking input from residents to bring their family histories to light.

One is the Mondragon Family and the trading post it once ran at the site. It was at the Mondragon Trading Post that people would pay a fee to ride the ferry that crossed through the Rio Grande at Lobatos Bridge and up the river to New Mexico. Providing boating river access once again at Lobatos Bridge is part of the BLM plan.

“At the bridge, the water was as deep as the rim of the gorge,” Julie Chacon, executive director of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area said of the history of the area and the period when the Mondragon store operated. She too is focused on uncovering and telling the stories for the Lobatos Bridge educational project.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Connecting all the river dots

Later this month another community meeting, this one in Manassa, will be held to continue conversations started in June on requesting either a national conservation area designation or national monument extension for the upper and middle portions of the Rio Grande and across two states.

Chris Canaly, the savvy leader of San Luis Valley Ecosystems Council, is among those in the room. Also helping with the conversations are Anna Vargas, well-known in Conejos County for her environmental activism, and Nathan Coombs, head of the Conejos Water Conservancy District and whose voice in Manassa and Conejos County carries weight through his leadership in the Mormon community. Staff for both Sen. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael Bennet are paying attention.
A federal designation has been tried before, back in 2014, and failed to gain consensus after Congress designated the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument which encompasses the Rio Grande Gorge just downstream from Lobatos Bridge. Like the Lobatos Bridge area, BLM manages the public lands of the Rio Grande national monument area and has to deal with the gnarly local issues of private land ownership and historic grazing rights in both neighboring New Mexico and the Valley.

Canaly thinks BLM gets a bad rap for its management of public lands overall. The federal agency, she said, is mindful of the importance of its engagement with community members and takes great care in its management of public lands in the San Luis Valley and Colorado.

“We are paranoid about recreation. We have to take the side of protecting the ecosystem,” Canaly said of her organization. “But we also understand the importance of planning recreation well and if it’s planned well, it’s a huge benefit to the communities nearby.”

There is no better example than the Great Sands Dunes National Park and Preserve and how that designation spurred a growth in tourism through Alamosa County.

Canaly said there appears to be more openness this time around to the idea of creating a federal designation for the Rio Grande corridor through Alamosa, Conejos and into neighboring Taos County.

Photo credit: Ryan Scavo/Big River Collective

Whether the current effort results in a request for a national conservation area or national monument designation, the feeling among environmental and recreational groups is there is enough momentum with the Lobatos Bridge project that it only makes sense to finish connecting the dots of the Rio Grande and let a rich story of the nation’s history come to life.

“The opportunity is there to understand the cultural resources that were here and the continuation of human activity that is well-documented here over the last 10,000 years. It is super, frickin’ interesting. Why not elevate that consciousness?” Canaly said.

Photos by: Ryan Scavo | Big River Collective

The Rio Grande isn’t just a border – it’s a river in crisis

The Rio Grande, viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Vianey Rueda, CC BY-ND

Vianey Rueda, University of Michigan and Drew Gronewold, University of Michigan

The Rio Grande is one of the longest rivers in North America, running some 1,900 miles (3,060 kilometers) from the Colorado Rockies southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. It provides fresh water for seven U.S. and Mexican states, and forms the border between Texas and Mexico, where it is known as the Río Bravo del Norte.

The river’s English and Spanish names mean, respectively, “large” and “rough.” But viewed from the Zaragoza International Bridge, which connects the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, what was once mighty is now a dry riverbed, lined ominously with barbed wire.

Map of the Rio Grande basin, from southwest Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Rio Grande is one of the largest rivers in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. Because of drought and overuse, sections of the river frequently run dry. Kmusser/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

In the U.S., people often think of the Rio Grande mainly as a political border that features in negotiations over immigration, narcotics smuggling and trade. But there’s another crisis on the river that receives far less attention. The river is in decline, suffering from overuse, drought and contentious water rights negotiations.

Urban and rural border communities with poor infrastructure, known in Spanish as colonias, are particularly vulnerable to the water crisis. Farmers and cities in southern Texas and northern Mexico are also affected. As researchers who study hydrology and transboundary water management, we believe managing this important resource requires closer cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico.

A hidden water crisis

For nearly 80 years, the U.S. and Mexico have managed and distributed water from the Colorado River and the Lower Rio Grande – from Fort Quitman, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico – under the 1944 Water Treaty, signed by presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Manuel Avila Camacho. The Colorado River was the central focus of treaty negotiations because officials believed the Colorado basin would have more economic activity and population growth, so it would need more water. In fact, however, the Rio Grande basin has also seen significant growth.

For the Rio Grande, the treaty allocates specific shares of water to the U.S. and Mexico from both the river’s main stem and its tributaries in Texas and Mexico. Delivery of water from six Mexican tributaries has become the source of contention. One-third of this flow is allocated to the U.S., and must total some 76 million cubic feet (2.2 million cubic meters) over each five-year period.

The treaty allows Mexico to roll any accrued deficits at the end of a five-year cycle over to the next cycle. Deficits can only be rolled over once, and they must be made up along with the required deliveries for the following five-year period. Farmers as far north as Colorado rely on water from the Rio Grande for irrigation.

These five-year periods, called cycles, are numbered. Cycles 25 (1992-1997) and 26 (1997-2002) were the first time that two consecutive cycles ended in deficit. Like the Colorado River, the Rio Grande has become over-allocated: The 1944 treaty promises users more water than there is in the river. The main causes are persistent drought and increased water demand on both sides of the border.

Much of this demand was generated by the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated most border tariffs between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. From 1993 through 2007, agricultural imports and exports between the U.S. and Mexico quadrupled, and there was extensive expansion of maquiladoras – assembly plants along the border. This growth increased water demand.

Ultimately, Mexico delivered more than the required amount for Cycle 27 (2002-2007), plus its incurred deficit from cycles 25 and 26, by transferring water from its reservoirs. This outcome appeased Texas users but left Mexico vulnerable. Since then, Mexico has continued to struggle to meet its treaty responsibilities and has experienced chronic water shortages.

In 2020, a confrontation erupted in the state of Chihuahua between the Mexican National Guard and farmers who believed delivery to Texas of water from the Rio Conchos – one of the six tributaries regulated under the 1944 treaty – threatened their survival. In 2022, people lined up at water distribution sites in the Mexican city of Monterrey, where the population had doubled since 1990. As of 2023, halfway through Cycle 36, Mexico has only delivered some 25% of its targeted amount.

Border politics overshadow water shortages

As climate change makes the Southwest hotter and drier, scientists predict that water shortages on the Rio Grande will intensify. In this context, the 1944 treaty pits humanitarian needs for water in the U.S. against those in Mexico.

It also pits the needs of different sectors against one another. Agriculture is the dominant water consumer in the region, followed by residential use. When there is a drought, however, the treaty prioritizes residential water use over agriculture.

The Rio Grande is affected by nearly the same hydroclimate conditions as the Colorado River, which flows mainly through the southwest U.S. but ends in Mexico. However, drought and water shortages in the Colorado River basin receive much more public attention than the same problems on the Rio Grande. U.S. media outlets cover the Rio Grande almost exclusively when it figures in stories about immigration and river crossings, such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2023 decision to install floating barriers in the river at widely used crossing points.

The compact that governs use of Colorado River water has widely recognized flaws: The agreement is 100 years old, allocates more rights to water than the river holds, and completely excludes Native American tribes. However, negotiations over the Colorado between compact states and the U.S. and Mexico are much more focused than decision-making about Rio Grande water, which has to compete with many other bilateral issues.

Dry, cracked mud with mountains in the background
Dry, cracked mud along the banks of the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park in Texas, March 25, 2011. In the spring and early summer of 2022, up to 75 miles of the river went dry in the park. AP Photo/Mike Graczyk

Adapting to the future

As we see it, the 1944 water treaty is inadequate to solve the complex social, economic, hydrological and political challenges that exist today in the Rio Grande basin. We believe it needs revision to reflect modern conditions.

This can be done through the minute process, which permits Mexico and the U.S. to adopt legally binding amendments without having to renegotiate the entire agreement. The two countries have already used this process to update the treaty as it pertains to the Colorado River in 2012 and again in 2017.

These steps allowed the U.S. to adjust its deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico based on water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado’s largest reservoir, in ways that proportionally distributed drought impacts between the two countries. In the Rio Grande basin, Mexico does not have similar flexibility.

The U.S. also has the ability to proportionally reduce deliveries under a separate 1906 agreement that outlines water delivery from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. In 2013, for example, Mexico received only 6% of the water it was due under the 1906 Convention.

Enabling Mexico to proportionally reduce Rio Grande deliveries according to drought conditions would distribute drought and climate change impacts more fairly between both countries. As we see it, this kind of cooperation would deliver human, ecological and political benefits in a complex and contentious region.

Vianey Rueda, PhD Student in Resource Ecology Management, University of Michigan and Drew Gronewold, Associate Professor of Environment and Sustainability, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trinchera Subdistrict makes case for SB22-028 Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund money — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

Credit: Trinchera Groundwater Management Subdistrict

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website:

Questions raised whether retirement of Trinchera wells would help reduce groundwater use

Monty Smith, president of the Trinchera Groundwater Management Subdistrict, raised objections at last week’s Rio Grande Water Conservation District quarterly board meeting with how two applications to retire groundwater wells from the Trinchera subdistrict are being reviewed through rules the water conservation district adopted to administer the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund established under Colorado Senate Bill SB22-028.

Smith and Trinchera subdistrict engineer Jason Lorenz said Trinchera irrigators are not getting the same consideration as irrigators in the Valley’s other subdistricts to access the $30 million in the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund due to how the subdistrict allocates groundwater each irrigation season.

“I’m kind of feeling like our applicants are being treated unfairly because they happen to be part of a subdistrict that took the bull by the horns from the beginning and did something that makes a real difference for the subdistrict as a whole,” said Smith.

The Trinchera subdistrict operates within the Trinchera Water Conservancy District and away from Rio Grande Water Conservation District governance. Two farmers operating in the Trinchera subdistrict have applied to be compensated through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund for retiring groundwater wells under the rules the Rio Grande Water Conservation District adopted to access money in the fund.

“You’re changing the rules for Costilla County, you are,” said Lorenz, who designed the water allocation formula the Trinchera subdistrict uses to tell farmers how much they can use each irrigation season. Like irrigators in the six subdistricts of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, irrigators in the Trinchera subdistrict have to contribute to the overall sustainability of the aquifers under state groundwater pumping rules.

The debate centers around whether the retirement of the groundwater wells in the Trinchera subdistrict will actually contribute to the state’s overall goal to reduce the amount of groundwater pumped by Valley irrigators.

“We have not denied those applications. They are still in the line for the money,” said Amber Pacheco, deputy general manager for the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

She said the review of the two applications from the Trinchera subdistrict are ongoing in consultation with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, which has to also approve each application to the state’s Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund. 

“The state engineer does have the same concerns as the (Rio Grande Water Conservation District) board in general,” said Craig Cotten, the state water engineer in the Valley. He said State Engineer Kevin Rein is concerned whether the applications from the Trinchera subdistrict farmers will withstand state audits of the money since there are questions whether the retirement of the Trinchera wells would lead to a cutback in groundwater use.

Smith said each of the applicants is nearing retirement and could use the money to help retire farm debt since they likely won’t continue on with farm operations. 

“If you don’t approve these funds, it sucks for them. You’re just hurting them. You’re not hurting the subdistrict,” said Smith. “By reading the rules, we think they are eligible for this money. The rules are clear. I think you did a good job. They are very straight forward. But when it came to the application of them, it feels like the rug got pulled back from us.”

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District has approved at least two contracts with crop producers worth $1.2 million through the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund. While it reviews additional applications submitted initially, it has opened up a second-round of applications that allows crop producers to submit proposals to get compensated through the fund by retiring groundwater wells.

Culebra Peak via Costilla County

Department of Justice attorneys object to judge’s nod to settle #RioGrande SCOTUS case — Source #NewMexico @source_nm

A small stream flows alongside the Rio Grande at Isleta Blvd. and Interstate 25 on Sept. 7, 2023. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source New Mexico)

Click the link to read the article on the Source New Mexico website (Danielle Prokop):

The federal government will fight the 11th hour settlement that came down last year, and will stretch into 2024 at least.

Whether the water is low or high, the Supreme Court fight over Rio Grande water stretches on.

The latest iteration of the legal fights that span decades, is the Texas claim before the U.S. Supreme Court that New Mexico groundwater pumping below Elephant Butte Reservoir shorts the downstream state its rights to the river’s water.

This would be a violation of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, which splits the water between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

A recent settlement proposal between the three states was accepted by a federal judge overseeing the case as special master in July.

Not everyone is on board.

The federal government officially laid out its objections to the special master’s recommendation that the U.S. Supreme Court adopt a compromise to end the lawsuit over the Rio Grande’s water between Texas and New Mexico.

In a 96-page document, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar and other Department of Justice attorneys lay out three legal arguments arguing why the high court should reject the deal.

First and foremost, they argue, settlement is impossible without the federal government’s consent.

A settlement requires consent from each party, and the agreement adds a “host of obligations,” on the federal operation of the Rio Grande Project, which delivers water in a series of canals and ditches to two regional irrigation districts and to Mexico.

Finally, the federal government argues the settlement violates the compact by moving the location of water deliveries, and fails to recognize a “1938 baseline,” of minimal groundwater pumping.

Creating a balance of water that’s taken from aquifers and water that replenishes aquifers is an important aspect of making sure water will be available when it’s needed. Image from “Getting down to facts: A Visual Guide to Water in the Pinal Active Management Area,” courtesy of Ashley Hullinger and the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center

The proposed settlement uses a mathematical model to determine splitting the water, based on drought conditions from 1951 until 1972, when drought and development pushed pumping to increase significantly. Much of the region’s agriculture and its entire residential use is pumped from groundwater.

The federal government argues using the model violates the Compact.

“But the baseline on which the Compact was predicated was the baseline that existed when the Compact was signed — not decades later, after groundwater pumping in New Mexico had greatly increased and drawn water away from the Project,” the federal government wrote.

The region is already expecting the state government to curb pumping – with the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer announcing the need to cut 17,000 acre feet to meet the settlement using the proposed model.

TheElephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 supported the federal government’s position in legal briefs of their own.

They agreed that the state compacts have no authority over the operation of the Rio Grande Project.

The Supreme Court has accepted the federal government’s arguments over a special master’s recommendation in this case before. In 2018, justices unanimously admitted the Department of Justice as a party into the case.

Additional responses and replies from the party will be collected into 2024, and there’s no expectation of scheduling a hearing with the Supreme Court until then.

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Senate Bill 28 at work in the #SanLuisValley — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande

San Luis Valley center pivot. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

From email from the Alamosa Citizen (Chris Lopez):

When it meets this week, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board will announce it has closed on its first two deals with crop producers to purchase groundwater wells that will be permanently retired. The deals are part of the $30 million earmarked to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District under state Senate Bill 28, which was adopted to pay Valley irrigators for their groundwater wells as part of Colorado’s efforts to reduce groundwater usage among Valley farmers and save the Rio Grande Basin. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is paying  $1.2 million to two crop producers in the first of the deals. The district opened up a second-round of applications on Oct. 10 that allows crop producers to submit a proposal for the state dollars. The second-round application period ends on Dec. 29.

First batch of Douglas County water board interviews sees rural focus — #Colorado Community Media

One of the large bodies of water in Douglas County, the Rueter-Hess Reservoir is a drinking-water storage facility owned and operated by the Parker Water and Sanitation District, the entity that provides drinking water to much of Parker and some nearby areas. Photo credit: Parker Water & Sanitation

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Community Media website (Ellis Arnold). Here’s an excerpt:

More than 50 people applied to serve on the Douglas County Water Commission, a new entity that is expected to help shape the future of water supply in a continually growing county. After county leaders narrowed the pool of applicants down to 12 whom they wanted to bring in for interviews, the applicants fielded questions, including ones about their connections and any conflicts of interest they might carry. The water commission is expected to help create a plan regarding water supply and conservation, among other aspects of water in the county. It’ll consist of unpaid volunteers, according to the county’s elected leaders.

The forming of the new body comes against the backdrop of a controversial proposal to pump about 22,000 acre-feet of water per year to Douglas County from the San Luis Valley, a region of Southern Colorado. Renewable Water Resources is the private company that proposed the project. Last year, county leaders Laydon and Lora Thomas joined together in deciding not to move forward with that project, while county leader George Teal has continued to support it.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

In a drying West, every drop counts. A new Colorado-created tool could help farmers care for their crops — and themselves: Increasing irrigation efficiency crucial, experts say — The #Denver Post

Credit: Intermountain West Joint Venture

Click the link to read the article on The Denver Post website (Elise Schmelzer). Here’s an excerpt:

…driving all over Costilla County and manually opening and closing gates or placing tarps to direct water is time intensive — especially since Lobato and his family all work other full-time jobs in addition to farming.

“You have to work a day job to afford to farm or ranch,” he said.

The Lobatos are one of the first farming families in the state to try a new, Colorado-grown technology aimed at reducing farmers’ workload and managing Colorado’s shrinking water supply more efficiently. The Auto Tarp allows farmers to remotely drop irrigation gates and monitor weather and soil conditions from their phones. The 3D-printed gadget was created in a garage outside Gunnison by a rancher who decided water users without lots of money should also have access to water efficiency tools…Three ranchers and farmers have adopted the technology so far as state and regional authorities work to help agricultural water users cut their water use or use water more efficiently as Colorado and the West endure two decades of drought and prepare for long-term projected aridification…

Creating more water-efficient and labor-saving irrigation systems is crucial in the West, said Perry Cabot, a research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. Cabot is working on a project that would use artificial intelligence to monitor and water fields…Kruthaupt started working on the tool in his garage several years ago. The device uses a powerful magnet to hold an irrigation gate open until a user remotely tells the Auto Tarp to release the magnet. When the magnet is released, the gate drops into the ditch and blocks the water’s flow, causing water to spill out of the ditch and flood nearby fields. Other people had attempted to create a similar device — one involved a wind-up mechanical timer — but nothing had made it to the market, he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Trout Unlimited a three-year Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant to continue to develop the technology.

@AlamosaCitizen: Despite Renewable Water Resources principals’ claims, Upper #RioGrande Basin remains over-appropriated — ‘There is no surface or #groundwater available for a new appropriation in Water Division 3′ — Craig Cotten

San Luis Valley irrigation crop circles. Photo credit: The Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website:

In response to claims by principals of Renewable Water Resources, officials this week with the Colorado Division of Water Resources reiterated that the Upper Rio Grande Basin is over-appropriated and has no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation.

The reply from state water officials came in response to questions from Alamosa Citizen after the Douglas County Future Fund made a series of claims in a recent newsletter it publishes to influence decision-makers in Douglas County.

RWR principals, who include former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and political strategist Sean Tonner, have been working to convince Douglas County commissioners that there is water available in Rio Grande Basin that Douglas County could own and pump into the Front Range bedroom community.

The search for a future water source by suburban communities like Douglas County is one of the pitched battles of the climate-influenced 21st century. The storyline goes like this: Sprawling suburban communities that blew up during the 1980s and ’90s and first decades of the 21st century are on the hunt for new water sources as periods of extreme drought and intensified changes to surface temperatures reduce the availability of water as a natural resource.

The agricultural corridors of America, meanwhile, are working to reduce their own consumption of water through technological advances and through reducing the amount of acreage used to grow crops.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

It’s a classic new battle: population centers vs. rural regions, and there is no clearer example of the conflict than Renewable Water Resources and its efforts to export 22,000 acre-feet of water from the Upper Rio Grande Basin to Colorado’s Front Range on a perpetual basis.

“The San Luis Valley has 1.02 billion acres of unused water, because it sits over the second-largest aquifer in the United States,” is one of the claims RWR made in a Douglas County Future Fund newsletter in September.

Another claim it made as fact: “The RWR project proposes to use 22,000 acre-feet. This water would come from the confined aquifer in the San Luis Valley, which is fully renewable within five days of runoff from the San Luis Valley mountain ranges.”

Neither is the case and both claims fly in the face of state groundwater rules governing irrigators’ use of water in the Valley. The lack of recharge and dropping levels of the confined and unconfined aquifers of the Rio Grande Basin have pushed state water engineers to develop specific groundwater usage rules in an effort to restore the aquifers and save the Rio Grande Basin. Each irrigation season, the state curtails water usage along the Rio Grande Basin, which impacts farming and ranching production in the Valley as Colorado works to control the water availability and meet its own obligations to New Mexico and Texas under the Rio Grande Compact. 

“At this time the Division of Water Resources is not going to comment on the specific details included in the newsletter produced by the Douglas County Future Fund. However, due to the over-appropriated nature of our water system, there is no surface or groundwater available for a new appropriation in Water Division 3, the Rio Grande Basin in Colorado,” said state water Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten.

Douglas County recently created a 12-member water commission to advise it on water issues. The new committee includes Tonner, who uses the Douglas County Future Fund newsletter to make the case for Renewable Water Resources’ water exportation proposal.

The Douglas County water commission members include:

District 1
Merlin Klotz, James Myers, Donald Lagley

District 2
Clark Hammelman, James Maras, Roger Hudson

District 3
Frank Johns, Evan Ela, Kurt Walker, Harold Smethillis

At-large Seats
Sean Tonner, Tricia Bernhard

Water managers on the Rio Grande Basin continue to monitor the efforts in Douglas County. The county government in Douglas County is not set up to be a water provider and is dealing with its own conflicts. 

The Douglas County commissioners have been advised by attorneys that the Renewable Water Resource concept is littered with problems and would have difficulty gaining traction in state district water court. 

Any effort to export water from the San Luis Valley would get tied up for years in state water court. The six counties in the San Luis Valley also recently banded together to create local planning rules that local officials believe would block a water exportation plan from moving forward.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Archuleta County joins coalition for #RioGrande fish conservation — The #PagosaSprings Sun

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

At the Board of County Commisioners work session earlier that day, County Attorney Todd Weaver explained that Archuleta County was approached by a coali- tion of counties about contributing $1,000 for the conservation of the Rio Grande trout, Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker in the Rio Grande watershed. He noted that the coalition represents local interests in efforts to enhance the environment for these fish with the goal of preventing them from becoming threatened or endangered, which Weaver stated would trigger a variety of requirements and restrictions.

#AnimasRiver: The 1911 Flood: Could it happen again? — @Land_Desk (Jonathan P. Thompson) #SanJuanRiver #RioGrande #DoloresRiver #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver

Flood damage wrought by Junction Creek in October 1911. This is looking south down Main Avenue from around the current location of Durango High School.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

At around four a.m. on October 6, 1911, Navajo Methodist Mission Superintendent J.N. Simmons woke up to find himself and the mission near Farmington, New Mexico, surrounded by water. It wasn’t a total surprise. He and two other staffers—Frank B. Tice and Walter Weston—had received the flood alarm the previous day, but had chosen to stay, certain that the San Juan River’s waters would never reach them, and if they did, the brand new, three-story cement-block mission building, watched over by God, would provide an unsinkable refuge. They were wrong.1.

The rain began in the San Juan Mountains late on the morning of October 4, 1911. It came down gently at first, slowly gaining intensity over the course of the day. By evening the tropical storm was a torrent, dropping two inches of precipitation on Durango in just 12 hours, nearly twice what the town normally gets during all of October. Weather watchers in Gladstone, above Silverton, recorded eight inches of rain on October 5—a virtual high country hurricane.

Design for the whitewater park at Smelter Rapids via the City of Durango

Once-gurgling streams jumped from their banks and twisted steel railroad tracks into contorted sculpture, decimated roads and bridges, and demolished barns. Junction Creek tore out the Main Avenue and railroad bridges before adding its load to the Animas, which carried an estimated 25,000 cubic feet per second of water as it ran through town. It’s an almost incomprehensible volume. A good spring runoff these days might lift the waters to 6,000 cfs, high enough for the river to leave its banks and spread across the floor of the Animas Valley, and to turn Smelter Rapid into a churning hellhole for rafters.

The water unmoored the railroad bridge near Durango’s fish hatchery and carried it downstream, despite the fact that two full coal cars had been parked on the bridge to provide ballast. The river jumped its channel and headed onto 15th street, creating a five-foot-deep river that today would go right through a Burger King. further downriver the waters washed away 100 tons of toxic slag from the Durango smelter, and carried away several homes from Santa Rita, on the opposite shore.

The Animas River rushing beneath the Main Avenue bridge in Durango, Oct. 1911. Note the partially submerged house located about where the VFW is now and the water crossing Main near where Burger King is currently located. Photo credit Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College.

Sixty miles east of Durango, in Pagosa Springs, the upper San Juan River swept away more than 20 structures and destroyed the town water plant, hospital, and jail. Its power plant “was wiped out of existence, nothing left but the water wheel.” The Bayfield Blade called Arboles, a village near the junction of the San Juan and Piedra Rivers, “a thing of the past.” That was a bit of hyperbole, but maybe also prophetic: the community survived that flood, but was later buried under the waters of Navajo Reservoir. Further east the Rio Grande grew even grander and threatened to carry parts of Española, Bernalillo, and Albuquerque down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Over in Dolores, Colorado, the river peaked out at 10,000 cfs, more than 20% greater than the second highest peak hit in 1949. The raging river of sorrow ripped out railroad tracks, washed out roads, and inundated the town under four feet of water and four inches of mud, carrying away houses and the boardwalk. My great grandfather, John Malcolm Nelson, had come down from Ouray in early October to look at buying land in the Ute Strip — and he did, down at Sunnyside Mesa. But his trip back north was delayed by the fact that every bridge and road in the region was washed out.

In Farmington the seething monsters of the upper San Juan and the Animas joined forces, spilling over the banks and onto the flats on either side of the river, where the Navajo mission sat. Simmons and his fellow staffers sent the children to higher ground at about midnight as a precaution, equipping each with a blanket and loaf of bread. Then they went to bed, not realizing their own mistake until they awoke four hours later.

Somehow, Weston was able to quickly escape on horseback (he may have snuck out earlier). Tice chose to stick around, heading for the top floor of the structure. Simmons ran out and climbed atop an outhouse, apparently in order to launch himself onto a horse. Simmons missed the horse and ended up in the water, instead, carried rapidly downstream alongside dead animals, haystacks, and pieces of people’s homes.

Tice, it seemed, was the only survivor, and as the sun came up, onlookers gathered on the opposite shore. They watched Tice climb from the second story to the third, finally climbing onto the roof with his dog. It seemed safe enough; the water stopped rising after it inundated the third story. Little did he know, the waters were slowly dissolving the building underneath him, and it, the roof, the dog, and finally Tice were all swallowed up by the current.

The Shiprock Indian School campus was covered with water five feet deep, washing away several adobe buildings, and the fairgrounds, prettied up for the annual fair, were covered with a torrent of muddy water. Every bridge in San Juan County, Utah, where a miniature oil boom was on, was torn loose and carried away by the angry torrent; 150,000 cubic feet of water shot past the little town of Mexican Hat every second, according to a 2001 USGS paleo-flood hydrology investigation. That’s about 100 times the volume of water in the river during a typical March or April, a popular time to raft that section. It took out the then-new Goodridge bridge — some 39 feet above the river’s normal surface — tore through the Goosenecks, backed up in Grand Gulch, deposited trees on sandstone benches high above where the river normally flows, and finally combined with the raging Colorado River to create a liquid leviathan of unknown volume that wreaked more havoc through the Grand Canyon and beyond.


The 1911 event is typically considered to be the Four Corners Country’s biggest flood, based on streamflow estimates, anecdotal accounts, and the damage wrought. Since then it has been rivaled only by the June 1927 flood, when the Animas River in Durango reached 20,000 cubic feet per second; and in 1949 and 1970 when the high-water mark was about 12,000 cfs and 11,600 cfs, respectively. That might make 1911 seem like a freak event — a once-in-a-millennium confluence of factors. Combine that with the fact that the river’s annual peak streamflows have trended downward over the last century or so, and a 1911 repeat seems less and less likely.

But these waters are muddied, so to speak, by the relatively short timeline and limited geographical scope we’re working with. Many streams didn’t have gages on them at the time, and even those that were present weren’t always accurate (most of the 1911 figures are estimates, not actual measurements). Even though most of the “old-timers” said it was the biggest flood they’d ever seen or heard of in these parts, we have to remember that they tended to be white guys, and white settler-colonists had only been in the area for four decades or so. Not that memories of weather events are ever all that reliable.

A swollen San Juan River nearly wiped Montezuma Creek and Bluff City, Utah, off the map back in 1884 (the 1911 flood wreaked less destruction). Yet there were virtually no stream gages, so the magnitude of that earlier event is hard to quantify and, besides, maybe the later flood was less destructive because there were fewer homes and infrastructure in the flood’s path by then.

Also, when one looks beyond the San Juan Basin watershed, one finds streamflows that far exceed those of October 1911. On the USGS stream gage on the Green River in Green River, Utah, the 1911 flood (which was at the beginning of the 1912 water year, by the way) ranks as just the 5th largest flow since 1895. And 1911 places fourth overall on the Rio Grande at Otowi Bridge, outdone by 1920, 1941, and 1904.

We can extend the timeline dramatically by turning to paleoflood hydrology, which is sort of like dendrochronology, except instead of looking at tree rings to understand past climate, it uses geological evidence — slackwater lines, debris — to reconstruct the magnitude and frequency of past floods. I skimmed the available literature, including this Bureau of Reclamation survey of studies, and here’s what stood out:

  • The 1911 flood was likely the largest on the Animas River over the last several hundred years or more. On the San Juan River near Bluff, researchers found no evidence of floods higher than the 1911 debris, indicating it “may represent the largest flood on the San Juan River for a much longer time period than 1880-2001.” In any event, 1911 was larger than the 1884 flood, even in Bluff.
  • On the Colorado River at Lees Ferry the 1884 flood was most likely the largest during white settler-colonial times, with an estimated flow of about 300,000 cubic feet per second (there were no gages there, yet), which would have provided quite the ride through the Grand Canyon. Some researchers believe an 1862 flood had a flow of about 400,000 cfs. Holy big water, Batman!
  • Extend the timeline further and the ride gets even wilder: A 1994 USGS paleoflood study found evidence of a 500,000 cfs flood at Lees Ferry between 350 and 750 A.D.; and a 2018 reconnaissance found slackwater deposits indicating a flow of 700,000 cfs. I’m sure it provided quite the scene for Puebloan observers looking down from the canyon rim. If you happened to be in the canyon at that time? Yikes.
From: “A 4500 Year Record of Large Floods on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Arizona,” by Jim O’Connor et al.
  • study of floods on the Colorado near Moab found that, as is the case on the Animas River, there were a lot of large floods between the 1880s and 1930s, but peak streamflows have followed a decreasing trend ever since. One study suggested this resulted from: land-use changes, particularly a severe reduction in grazing after 1932; greater regulation of the river by upstream dams and so forth; greater upstream water consumption; and a decrease in intense, large flood-producing storms.
  • The Colorado River near Moab has experienced 44 floods during the last two millennia with flows ranging from 63,500 cfs to 325,000 cfs. (For context, the 1983 runoff, which threatened Glen Canyon Dam, reached 62,000 cfs on this stretch of river and in 1984 it hit 70,300). Most of those floods occurred during the last 500 years.
From “A 2000 year natural record of magnitudes and frequencies for the largest Upper Colorado River floods near Moab, Utah” by Greenbaum et al.

Warming temperatures, like those resulting from human-wreaked, fossil fuel burning-exacerbated climate change, can increase the intensity of storms and the amount of precipitation. That could, potentially, lead to bigger floods. So even though climate change has mostly manifested as drought in the Four Corners Country, it could also have the effect of putting a 1911-like storm on steroids. And with El Niño brewing in the Pacific, we might see some whopper storms sooner rather than later. Or not. Either way, though, it seems silly to assume the 1911 flood won’t repeat someday. Maybe next time it will be even worse.

That 1911 storm dissipated over the next couple of days, leaving a bright sun to illuminate the river valleys, newly scoured of the roads, houses, bridges, railroad tracks, and other detritus that humans had littered the valleys with over the previous decades. But the folks of the San Juan Basin soon went to work rebuilding — quite often in exactly the same spots that had flooded so catastrophically.

I used to see that as a combination of foolishness, hubris, obliviousness, and stubbornness all woven into a tapestry of denial. Surely they couldn’t have believed a flood of that magnitude would never occur again.

Looking from Main Avenue in Durango (or thereabouts) toward the Day House. The Animas Brewing Co. now stands about where the right, foreground house is.

And yet, now that I’ve fallen victim to a flood, or at least my home has, I finally get it. What do I know about their circumstances? Maybe they had invested everything they owned into this little plot of land and a home, and they have nowhere else to go. Maybe they are just so wedded to this particular place that they figure it’s worth the risk to build in a 100-year flood plain. Maybe they were just tenacious bastards shaking their fist at the sky in defiance.

What I do know is that if and when there is a repeat of the 1911 flood, or that whopper that sent 700,000 cfs into the Grand Canyon, it will leave some serious destruction in its wake.

The 1911 flood wrecked a lot of infrastructure, but the human death toll was much smaller than one might have expected. Among the handful of fatalities was Frank B. Tice, of the Navajo Methodist Mission, whose body was found 20 miles downstream from where he was swept away.

But there was something else, too. On an island in the San Juan River, somewhere between Farmington and Shiprock, a man huddled next to a small fire, cooking apples that he had snagged as they bobbed past. After falling in the water he had grabbed ahold of some debris, and it had carried him for miles until he finally reached the island, cold, wet and hungry but, maybe miraculously, alive. It was J.N. Simmons, of the Navajo mission.1

A 1998 paleo-flood investigation determined the measurement was in error and it was more likely that about four inches fell across a wider area. In any event, the author of the report does not dispute the magnitude of the flood that resulted.

Douglas County Commissioner George Teal proposes campaign donors for Douglas County #water commission — #Colorado Politics

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Politics website (Marianne Goodland). Here’s an excerpt:

A Douglas County commissioner recommended individuals who contributed to his campaign to sit on a new water commission that would be tasked with ensuring sufficient future water supply for the county. The individuals included two principals of a water development firm that has been trying to get buy-in for a proposal to pipe water from the San Luis Valley into Douglas County, a move that has been met with stiff opposition from governments in the valley.

Douglas County commissioners, from left: George Teal, Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon. Courtesy Douglas County

Douglas County’s commissioners met earlier this week to begin deciding who they would put on the new 11-member water commission, which will include three representatives of each district and two at-large members. The nominees were among those who submitted applications for the water commission, a list that has been kept confidential. 

During Monday’s discussion, Commissioner George Teal announced his eight picks for members: Three for his district, three for another district, plus two at-large members. Five of his picks have made substantial contributions to his political campaigns, including two principals from Renewable Water Resources, the firm that pitched moving water from San Luis Valley’s groundwater to Douglas County…On Aug. 13, 2021, Renewable Water Resources principals, their spouses and friends contributed to pay down Teal’s 2020 campaign debt. The contributions totaled $16,000. Among the funders were Tonner and John Kim, both RWR principals, and Craig Broughton, an associate of Tonner’s. All three are on Teal’s list for the water commission. He also named Castle Pines City Councilman Roger Hudson, who is deputy chief of staff for the House Minority caucus at the state Capitol and who also made several contributions to Teal’s campaign for the 2020 election. Teal also recommended Harold Smethills, who doesn’t live in Douglas County but owns property in Sterling Ranch. Smethills has also contributed to Teal’s campaign. In a previous discussion, Teal had proposed allowing people who don’t live in the county but own property there to apply for the water commission.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Objections to #RioGrande SCOTUS settlement could drop in October — Source #NewMexico

The Rio Grande at Isleta Blvd. and Interstate 25 on Sept. 7, 2023. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source New Mexico)

Click the link to read the article on the Source New Mexico website (Danielle Prokop):

The clerk of the Supreme Court granted an extension for parties to submit arguments against a settlement proposal in the decade-long lawsuit over Rio Grande water.

U.S. 8th Circuit Judge Michael Melloy – overseeing the case as a special master – gave the nod in early July to a plan proposed jointly by attorneys from New Mexico, Texas and Colorado to settle the dispute.

The federal government argued for Melloy to toss the settlement, saying that issues about the administration of the terms would violate their status as a party to the lawsuit and would impose new burdens on federal agencies.

Melloy’s 123-page report recommended the Supreme Court accept the lawsuit over the U.S. Department of Justice’s objections.

In a Sept. 5 letter to the court, Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar requested the date for arguments taking exception to the special master’s report to be pushed back to Oct. 6. Then other parties have a chance to reply in December, with one final round of arguments in January.

All parties agreed with the schedule changes according to the letter.

What happens next depends on the high’s court’s opinion of any objections to the special master’s report – which would most likely come after all arguments are filed in early January.

The long history and new settlement

This leg of the dispute started in 2013 when Texas sued New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case officially called Original No. 141 Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado . Texas alleged groundwater pumping from farming and other uses below Elephant Butte Reservoir shorted Texas of its fair share of Rio Grande water.

The river was split by the 1938 Rio Grande Compact signed by Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Texas’ lawsuit was an escalation of decades of lawsuits in different layer of court, which intensified as the megadrought’s grasp on New Mexico’s water supplies has intensified in the last 30 years.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the federal government to join as a party. The federal government’s argument’s mirrored Texas’ claims, saying New Mexico’s pumping threatened a U.S. treaty with Mexico and contracts with irrigation districts in southern New Mexico and far west Texas.

In 2022, after pivoting between settlement talks and heading back to trial, the state’s presented an eleventh-hour settlement proposal, which laid out how the Rio Grande would be split below Elephant Butte Dam. New Mexico would receive 57% of water, and Texas would receive 43% (all excluding Mexico’s share). A new index based off of the drought period from 1951-1978 would factor in groundwater pumping. The agreement lays out penalties if deliveries are above or below the agreed amount.

It also would require establishing the El Paso Gage, just past the Texas-New Mexico state line.

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Watching Albuquerque’s #RioGrande go dry — John Fleck (InkStain)

Albuquerque’s Rio Grande, drying September 3, 2023. Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

There’s so much going on in this picture.

The buildings on the horizon, downtown Albuquerque, are a couple of miles away – foreshortened by the camera’s zoom. It’s a modest downtown, which grew up in that spot 140 years ago because the real estate entrepreneurs collaborating with the newly arrived Athchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway were able to get the land cheap. The spot where Albuquerque’s downtown sits today was basically a swamp.

If you look closely in the picture above, you can see a bit of water, a languid meander across the sand beds of a rapidly shrinking river. When I went out this morning (Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023) the Rio Grande through the Albuquerque reach was still “connected”, in the words of the river managers. But barely. The river that is central to this community’s creation story is about to go dry.


In the parking lot by the old Barelas Bridge this morning, I ran into one of the members of the RiverEyes team, a young person of my acquaintance who bicycles through the riverside woods, checking at regularly spaced access points to see if the river is still connected. The operation is part of the staggeringly complex social-hydrological-institutional apparatus around this stretch of the river.

The RiverEyes observations feed into the elaborate effort to stave off the extinction of a fish called the Rio Grande silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus), which survives only in a couple hundred miles of the Rio Grande through central New Mexico. And in hatcheries. We’ve been doing RiverEyes-like monitoring since 1996. River drying is common south of town, but last year was the first time we needed to monitor here, through Albuquerque. This is the second.

On Friday, there were 30.6 miles of dry channel in the San Acacia Reach 75 miles downstream from Albuquerque. There were 3.6 dry miles in the Isleta Reach, 20 miles downstream from Albuquerque. Sampling in one of the wet parts of the San Acacia reach found 615 juvenile silvery minnows and 14 adults.

Here, we count fish.


Some years ago, a consulting firm ran a series of interviews and focus groups among Albuquerque residents to try to better understand their attitudes toward the Rio Grande. They found that residents viewed water issues – their supply – as a major concern. The river, not so much.

The Rio Grande, in fact, was kind of an embarrassment to local residents, the consultant found – small and struggling, not what a “real” river is supposed to look like.

Though, to be fair, even with lots of water, the Rio Grande here looks nothing like what a “real” river is supposed to look like. In a more natural state, before we built a city here, the Rio Grande wandered a broad flood plain, five miles wide in places. The narrow 600-foot channel you see in the picture at the top is a 20th century creation, begun in the 1930s with levees, expanded in 1959 in a project the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called “channel rectification” meant to turn a meandering river into a more efficient water delivery canal.

In response, the flood control works created ideal habitat for the development of the cottonwoods you see flanking the river, and the magnificent gallery forest we call the “bosque” grew alongside the river for most of its 200-ish miles through central New Mexico.

I’m hunting for a good jetty jack photo for the book. This isn’t it. Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

Riding this morning with a friend on a twisting path through the bosque, looking for spots to get out to the river channel to see for ourselves, we had to periodically stop and carefully navigate through “Kellner jetty jacks”, big metal contraptions installed in the ’50s as part of the “rectification” effort. Their job was to slow water and hold sediment and enhance the narrowing of the river channel. In so doing, the trapped sediments made ideal seed beds for the opportunistic cottonwoods. They also can be gnarly if you’re cycling, with cables that can snag a pedal, and sharp edges that can cut out a chunk of flesh if you’re not careful.

They also are a reminder of how profoundly unnatural this lovely natural-seeming park, which I so love, really is.

In the circles in which I spend my time, there’s a lot of talk about how to maintain a “living river” here, which is an interesting conceptual framework. Maybe it means simply continuous flowing water? But the whole system is so completely hydrologically (and therefore ecologically) altered by human interventions that we quickly end up down a deep and confusing conceptual rabbit hole when we try to think too hard about what “natural” and “living river” might mean. The terms might help us think well about desired future conditions. But they also can mislead.


Weirdly, the Rio Grande is going dry this year through Albuquerque for the second time in the last four years because of a lack of plumbing. El Vado Dam on the Rio Chama, a tributary, is under repairs. Normally we’d store water from the spring runoff, using it to stretch out the river’s flows into the dry months of late summer and early fall. If we’d had El Vado storage this year, I’m told, the river would have been still flowing in the spot where I was standing to take the picture at the top of the post.

Without El Vado storage, the river here will likely dry through the lower end of the Albuquerque reach early next week. The RiverEyes team is on it. They’ll let us know.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

Forests to Faucets (and Headgates!) — John Fleck (InkStain) #SanJuanRiver #RioGrande

Informal collaborative governance in action. Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

I spent a couple of days last week out of Pagosa Springs in southern Colorado, touring forest restoration work in the headwaters of the San Juan-Chama Project, which produces critical water supplies for central New Mexico. In others words, water for my neighhbors and me.

We’ve learned over and over in the last couple of decades the risk to city water from wildfire in our headwaters, and the benefits of forest restoration. But the institutional path to restoration is challenging – because of cost, because of the complicated mix of land ownership, and because of the distance (both physically and also conceptually) between the mountain watersheds and the people who depend on the water they supply.

I came away optimistic about the creative problem solving I saw. This stuff’s hard, especially to do at the scale needed, but the efforts are impressive.


A few years back, my University of New Mexico collaborator Bob Berrens helped guide a research project intended to flesh out the relationship between Albuquerque and the distant headwaters (a ~200 mile drive away) that provide a critical piece of our water supply.

That’s from the resulting paper, Adhikari, Dadhi, et al. “Linking forest to faucets in a distant municipal area: Public support for forest restoration and water security in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” Water Economics and Policy 3.01 (2017): 1650019. Using a contingent valuation survey (a technique Bob’s used for many years to help us get our heads around non-market values of stuff related to water resources, see for example here on the endangered Rio Grande Silvery minnow), the research group found:

  • a mean willingness to pay of $64 per household, which equates to $7 million a year flowing out of Albuquerque to help support forest restoration in the watershed on which we depend, and
  • even households far away from watersheds support shelling out cash to pay for the work – not just communities like Santa Fe that can look up from their back porch to see their watershed (more on this later – in addition to its back porch watershed, Santa Fe also gets water from the San Juan-Chama headwaters)


While in Pagosa Springs and the surrounding watersheds, we got to see and learn about an amazing set of collaborations involving the Forest Stewards Guild, the Chama Peak Land Alliance, and The Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund, which provides a crucial conduit for the “payment for ecosystems” model Bob’s work talks about.

Bobcat® Compact Track Loader with Masticating Attachment. Photo credit: Wilderness Forestry, Inc.

One of the keys to making this work is a business model – the money supports folks in communities like Pagosa Springs who actually drive the masticators (big machines that grind up overgrown forest stuff). It’s part of the rural-urban social contract Bob and I talk about in the UNM Water Resources Program class we’re teaching this fall.


Bob’s called this stuff “forests to faucets”, but what we’re seeing this year on the Rio Grande through central New Mexico is a reminder that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and the river channel itself, also depend on the importation of San Juan-Chama Project water across the continental divide. Absent the SJC water over the last couple of months, the MRGCD’s ditches would have gone dry sooner, as would the river channel. (Both ditches and river channel are starting to go dry as we speak, after MRGCD’s San Juan-Chama water ran out, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)

The organizer of last week’s tours was the San Juan-Chama Contractor’s Association, a group formed several years ago to try to create a framework for collective action among the New Mexico water agencies that use this imported water. Other states have umbrella agencies to organize big parts of their Colorado River water management – the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (“CAP”) in Arizona, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and the Southern Nevada Water Agency (Las Vegas NV). In New Mexico, we have a bunch of separate San Juan-Chama Project water users, each with their own contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. The SJC Contractors Association has created a framework for thinking about collective action on things like physical infrastructure costs and maintenance – and forest restoration!

Key Rio Grande Valley players in attendance were leadership from Albuquerque, Santa Fe (which in addition to San Juan-Chama water, gets supplies from its own local Sangre de Cristo watersheds, which have forest health challenges too) and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.


In addition to spending time in drop-dead gorgeous mountain watersheds, last week’s tours and meetings also created a great framework for sitting out on the back patio at Motel SOCO in Pagosa Springs eating delicious bar food and drinking our choice of beverages and building social capital. Bonus points for the tours organizers for getting the forest nerds and the water nerds talking.

Great fun was had by me.

Near Pagosa Springs. Photo credit: Greg Hobbs

#RioGrande through Albuquerque could dry again in 2023 — John Fleck (InkStain)

Rio Grande in Albuquerque, Aug. 4, 2023. Photo by John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the InksStain website (John Fleck):

The Rio Grande, already dry in the San Acacia reach south of Socorro, has begun drying in the Isleta reach south of Albuquerque. And with a record hot dry summer, we could see it dry in Albuquerque again this year, as it did last year for the first time in 40 years.

Via Dani Prokop:

Problem 1 this year is that it’s hot and dry. Problem 2 is that El Vado Reservoir, built in the 1930s to store spring runoff for use at times like this, is under repair. So the stored water that would provide both irrigation and environmental benefits is unavailable.

This morning’s water management notes from the USBR noted 30 miles dry in the San Acacia Reach and a mile of dry riverbed in the Isleta reach.

Flow this morning through Albuquerque was a bit above 300 cubic feet per second. The median for this point in August is ~600 cfs.

What to do about the unconfined aquifer — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

Judge Michael Gonzales

Click the link to read the Monday Briefing from the Alamosa Citizen:

“Whether we had a good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.” Those were the final words from District 3 Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales just before adjourning court last Thursday in the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group case. The water court trial may have ended suddenly, but the issues surrounding the unconfined aquifer do not, and therein lies the problem. The irrigators in Subdistrict 1, who are responsible for restoring the unconfined aquifer and feel the pressure of the clock running on a state engineer order to make it happen by 2031 or else, just did adopt and the state engineer approved, a new strategy to recover the aquifer. Problem is the plan, called the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for Subdistrict 1, will undoubtedly end up in District 3 Water Court due to objections. And once it lands there, it’s likely to be a couple of more years before the chief water judge makes a decision on whether to approve, according to the experts. In the meantime, expect more retired acres to permanently retire water. It seems to be the only way.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Sustainable Water Augmentation Group #water trial ends after group withdraws application — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

In the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

WHEN the town of Del Norte terminated its agreement this week to lease water to the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group, it effectively killed the SWAG’s efforts to get an alternative augmentation plan through state District 3 Water Court. 

Sustainable Water Augmentation Group withdrew its application Thursday for its own augmentation plan separate from Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Conservation District, whose rules SWAG operators have been following and now will continue to follow in the irrigation seasons ahead. The owners of SWAG irrigate 17,255 acres in Alamosa, Rio Grande and Saguache counties and had proposed fallowing 5,014 under the plan.

The withdrawal of SWAG’s application was a sudden end to a water court trial that had been scheduled to last five weeks by Chief District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales due to the technical and complicated issues of managing the supply of water for irrigators in the San Luis Valley.

Gonzales’ ruling earlier in the day Thursday, in which he denied a motion by SWAG on how it wanted to address the loss of the Del Norte water in its application, convinced members of SWAG to withdraw.

Since it had lost the Del Norte water as a replacement source for groundwater pumping, SWAG attorneys had proposed that they be allowed to update their application with data from the 2023 water year to demonstrate how the SWAG plan never really needed the Del Norte water to begin with.

Gonzales ruled that wouldn’t be fair to water users and the state Division of Water Resources opposing the plan. Gonzales said SWAG knew going into the water trial that the Del Norte water may not be legally available to it and could have anticipated that before Del Norte actually took the water away.

“The Del Norte lease went away on the second day of trial through no fault of the applicant. I realize that,” Gonzales said. SWAG at that point, he said, had an option to “simply remove reference to the Del Norte water” from its application and provide updated numbers for the trial to move forward. 

Instead, said Gonzales, “the applicant made what may be a strategic decision … to amend their disclosures to not only reflect that they would no longer be relying on the Del Norte water, but in addition to that to incorporate the 2023 numbers from the subdistrict and to ultimately change their theory of the case. I think that’s the best way to summarize it.”

“That I find significant. That is significant and substantial,” Gonzales said.

The district court judge told applicants and opposers that it was unfortunate for the trial to come to such a sudden end given the important and complicated issues facing irrigators in Subdistrict 1 as they work to restore the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin.

“I’m sorry we’re at this point … I think our issues that we as a community and we as a district number three have to address, those don’t end today. We know that full well. Whether we had good (water) year or not, we know there’s a lot to address and deal with … I encourage you to continue with your discussions and continue talking.”

Del Norte from the summit of Lookout Mountain with the Sangre de Cristo Range in the background. By C caudill1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Alternative augmentation plan goes to #water court: Case pits Sustainable Augmentation Group against Subdistrict 1’s plan of water management — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE eyes of the San Luis Valley water world will be on state District 3 Water Court on Monday, where District Water Court Judge Michael Gonzales begins to hear testimony on an augmentation plan filed by a group of ag producers in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District.

The group of 12 – umbrellaed under the name SWAG or Sustainable Water Augmentation Group – is seeking the first group augmentation plan filed under the Colorado Division of Water Resources’ 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Season Rules. The rules govern groundwater withdrawals in the San Luis Valley and are a constant source of state government oversight on the Valley’s groundwater and surface water users.

Opposing the SWAG application is the influential Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which applies the state groundwater rules through a formation of subdistricts with oversight from farmers and ranchers who own water rights and wells within a subdistrict. The Colorado Water Conservation Board and host of local water users have also filed objections to the SWAG plan.

The fact Chief Water Court Judge Gonzales set five weeks to hear from the applicants, and water managers and users in opposition, speaks to the weight of the case, both in substance and precedence, to the arguments and the sheer volume of court documents associated with the SWAG case.

There are 1,946 scanned documents and over 1,000 exhibits in the voluminous court file – all part of a water augmentation plan that has the potential to upend the years of collaboration that Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser applauded during a recent trip to the Valley.

“This community has shown the state of Colorado what collaboration looks like,” he said. “The Rio Grande Basin issues related to groundwater really have called for people figuring out how we work together.”

That notion of collaboration and everyone-in-it-together gets flipped on its head with the SWAG case.

What it’s all about

SWAG producers are part of Subdistrict 1, the Valley’s most lucrative for crop sales of the six subdistricts, but also the most challenged when it comes to reaching the state engineer’s order to achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply. 

In this case that means bringing stability to the unconfined aquifer of the Rio Grande Basin, a directive the subdistrict has been working on since it first formed in 2006 only to find itself continuing to fight an uphill battle. 

Here’s the problem: The state engineer has given the subdistrict until 2031 to reach the sustainable benchmark, but during the past 12 years that subdistrict irrigators have been reducing groundwater pumping and retiring once-productive land, the bar to water sustainability has hardly moved.

OW time is ticking and Subdistrict 1 has moved to adopt even more restrictive groundwater pumping measures under its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management, which the state engineer blessed on June 20, some 13 years after approving the first plan. It’s an amended document the farmers and ranchers in the subdistrict spent the past 18 months discussing, crafting and sending to the full Rio Grande Water Conservation District board and state engineer’s office for review and approval. 

It’s also the document that pushed the SWAG to develop and file its own augmentation plan in state District 3 Water Court. Its big objection to the Subdistrict 1 plan is a new groundwater overpumping fee of $500 per acre-foot, up from $150 and the subject of lengthy debate during formation of the plan.

Farm operators would pay the hefty overpumping fee any time they exceed the amount of natural surface water tied to the property of their operation. The whole point of the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management is to let Mother Nature dictate the pattern of how irrigators in Subdistrict 1 restore the unconfined aquifer and build a sustainable model for farming in the future. 

The plan relies on covering any groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or the purchase of surface water credits, which is a game-changer particularly for farm operations like those in SWAG which have little to no natural surface water coming into their land.

SWAG says it owns 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres. Its augmentation plan relies on purchasing land for the surface water and retiring the acres. The finer arguments – on whether SWAG is contributing its “proportional” share to creating a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state of Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact – will define the case.

Members of the SWAG Board of Directors attend the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board meeting on July 14: Les Alderete, left, Asier Artaechevarria and Willie Myers.

The finer arguments to be made

To wade a bit deeper into the mud, the state engineer’s 2015 groundwater rules added more responsibility to the Valley’s groundwater users beyond making sure senior surface water rights aren’t harmed. The rules also require augmentation plans like the one being sought by SWAG to “bear proportionally the obligation to replace or Remedy Injurious Stream Depletions and for achieving and maintaining a Sustainable Water Supply.”

And the rules say groundwater irrigators can’t “prevent unreasonable interference with the State of Colorado’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Rio Grande Compact.”

The directive to bear proportional share in achieving and maintaining a “Sustainable Water Supply” and not interfering with the state’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact to New Mexico and Texas is what makes the SWAG application and the preceding weeks of testimony and evidence a water case to watch.

“This will be up to the court to finally figure out what do these (augmentation plans) look like going forward?’” said Cleave Simpson, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager and state senator representing the SLV. “As expensive as it is and as divisive as it is, it’s kind of a necessary step I guess.”


Augmentation PlanHistorically required of junior water users on over-appropriated streams, like those in the Rio Grande Basin, to obtain sufficient replacement water to offset any injurious depletions to senior water rights. Under the state Department of Water Resources 2015 Groundwater and Irrigation Rules, an augmentation plan also must help achieve and maintain a sustainable water supply and not interfere with Colorado’s obligations under the Rio Grande Compact and annual water delivery to New Mexico and Texas.

Subdistrict – A defined territory within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that helps promote local interests and accomplish improvements within that defined “special improvement district” or “subdistrict.” Currently there are six subdistricts, numbered consecutively as they were created. Subdistrict 1 was formed in 2006, and others subsequently after. Participation among crop producers is voluntary. Each subdistrict has a board of managers. Their decisions are voted on by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors.

SWAG – A group of groundwater users within Subdistrict 1 who have crafted their own augmentation plan rather than participate in the subdistrict’s Plan of Water Management and Annual Replacement Plan that have been approved by the state. The group says it has 257 member wells covering 17,317 irrigated acres.

Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management – Specific to Subdistrict 1, it establishes how irrigators will meet the state Division of Water Resources order to recover and create a sustainable unconfined aquifer. The first Plan of Water Management was approved in May 2010, and there were subsequent amendments to the plan approved in June 2017 and August 2018. The fourth amended plan was approved by Colorado Division of Water Resources in June 2023 and final by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board on July 14. There is a 10-day period from when the RGWCD board gave final approval that allows irrigators to challenge the plan in district water court and there are already challenges, meaning it won’t go into effect until it’s approved by the water court.

Saving cutthroat trout from the brink: Rio Costilla Native Fish Restoration Project hits 120-mile mark — The Taos News

Valle Vidal. By Jeremy L Davis – Jeremy L Davis, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Click the link to read the article on the Taos News website (Idone Rhodes). Here’s an excerpt:

More than three decades of ongoing work to restore Rio Grande sucker, Rio Grande chub and, most importantly, Rio Grande cutthroat trout — New Mexico’s state fish — to their native environment culminated with a celebration last weekend (July 1) in the Valle Vidal Unit of Carson National Forest, hosted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Forest Service.

Cutthroat trout historic range via Western Trout

Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout are the southernmost subspecies of cutthroat trout and are native to Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Once abundant in these waters, the subspecies’ population has been severely diminished by a variety of factors, including competition or breeding with non-native species, such as brook, brown and rainbow trout, as well as habitat loss. Rio Grande cutthroat and Rainbow spawn at the same time and can interbreed to produce hybrid “cutbow” trout.

The project restored Rio Grande cutthroat trout to 120 miles of their historic range in the Rio Costilla watershed, as well as 16 lakes and one reservoir. Teams worked tirelessly to remove native fish from waterways before treating the waters with the piscicide rotenone to kill off non-native fish.

Since 2002, the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery in Jemez Springs has raised over 72,000 Rio Grande cutthroat trout using pure trout taken from streams and other water sources. These fish are then used to restore wild populations and provide angling opportunities. It’s an ongoing collaboration between the Forest Service, which manages the land, and Game and Fish, which manages the subspecies, explained Carson National Forest Biologist Alyssa Radcliff. Some of the restored waterways are also on private land. As waterways were restored, fish barriers were built to keep non-native species from moving back up stream. In 2016, a permanent barrier was constructed in the Valle Vidal Unit to maintain the restored area.

The initial goal of the project was much smaller, with a focus on specific segments of waterways upstream. Eventually, however,“We’re like, ‘Why don’t we just do the whole basin?” Francisco Cortez, the program manager for fisheries on the Carson, said. Cortez has been working on the project since the early 1990s and watched it grow from habitat and population surveys to the large-scale restoration operation it is today.

A Rio Grande cutthroat trout is pictured in 2014. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

What punch will #ElNiño pack? — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

From the “Monday Briefing” newsletter from the Alamosa Citizen:

The start of an El Niño period was acknowledged in June by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization. As it forms in July and August we’ll have a better sense of the impacts to the Valley lands and the Rio Grande Basin. Some global experts are beginning to suggest a moderate to strong El Niño increases the chance that 2024 will be the warmest on record. We’re paying attention to the condition of the Rio Grande Basin and in particular the change in the unconfined aquifer storage after what’s been a strong runoff from the winter snowpacks. It’s a critical indicator on the overall health of the Rio Grande Basin and one that ultimately determines the state of agriculture in the SLV.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

It is irrigators in Subdistrict 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District who shoulder the greatest responsibility for recovering the ailing unconfined aquifer. To that end, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board of Managers will hold a public hearing this week on the Subdistrict 1 Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management to manage groundwater pumping in the unconfined aquifer area. It’s been a year or so in development with lots of difficult conversations on how to reduce groundwater irrigation in the Valley’s most lucrative agricultural subdistrict. The state Division of Water Resources has signed off on the plan and now comes the final public comments. The idea of a lawsuit challenging the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management also hangs out there. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Friday, July 14.

Rescuing silvery minnows like ‘slapping a Band-Aid on a severed limb’: The endangered species is only a symptom within a larger system in peril, conservationists say — SourceNM #RioGrande

Mallory Boro and Keegan Epping comb through the fine net for any silvery minnows left in the drying ponds of the Rio Grande at San Acacia. Fish litter the riverbed, inhabiting increasingly smaller ponds where the river breaks. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Click the link to read the article on the Source NM website (Danielle Prokop):

SOCORRO COUNTY, N.M. — Four people walk the streambed, combing the pools in Socorro County’s San Acacia Reach. Two wade thigh-deep in the bank crook, a seine net strung between them, and tug it through the water. Another calls out temperatures and measures the pool. The fourth jots it down in a notebook.

At the edge of the pool, the net is suddenly boiling with violent wriggling and thrashing. Mallory Boro from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gently grasps a small fish with one deft flick of a hand. An endangered silvery minnow.

The minnow is placed in a five-gallon bucket and then moved to an oxygenated rescue tank on the back of an all-terrain vehicle. Then, onward to the next pool to do it all again. There are miles of riverbed left to go.

This is a fish rescue on the Rio Grande. And the people doing it know it’s not enough.

“This is like slapping a Band-Aid on a severed limb,” said Thomas Archdeacon, who has led the silvery minnow recovery project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, N.M., for the past decade.

Four team members, left, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service pull on their shoes before a fish rescue. Mallory Boro, Lyle Thomas, Keegan Epping and Thomas Archdeacon often work extended hours in the heat to comb through more than 18 miles of riverbed that can dry nearly overnight. Archdeacon, right, has led the silvery minnow program at U.S. Fish and Wildlife for the past decade. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

These rescues require a lot of work, but even so, the fish are often in poor health from being in shallow, hot pools with little oxygen. Or they are sickened by other dead and rotting fish left behind when the water recedes.

“The ones that we rescue don’t survive very well. We’re getting between a 5% and 15% survival rate, which is bad,” he said. “Healthy fish have an 80% to 100% survival rate.”

Archdeacon drops his posture, taking a moment to rest against the ATV. He is an earnest speaker, lent gravitas by the touch of gray in his red hair. He has been studying and publishing research about the fish for nearly 15 years — most of his career.

Between 18 and 20 miles of the river dried in the San Acacia Reach overnight in mid-June, pushing the fish rescue crew to work punishing hours. The pools were smaller and drying faster than usual for June.

A vehicle in the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande. The San Acacia Reach is a stretch of the Rio Grande that has dried nearly every year for the past 25 years. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

More effort has to go to restoring the habitat that fish could survive in, and securing water in the river, he said.

“Eventually, we’re trying to take the emphasis off of the fish rescue, because it’s not effective conservation,” he said, running a hand across his face as the day creeps above 90 degrees.

Spawning between dams

The silvery minnow is not a charismatic species. The nondescript fish is green to yellow on top, a cream underbelly usually no more than 4 inches long, with small eyes and a small mouth. It’s short-lived, estimated to survive just over one year or up to two years in the wild, and four years in captivity.

Shoals of minnows used to swim nearly 3,000 miles of the Rio Grande’s length from the Gulf of Mexico to Española, N.M., and along much of the Pecos River.

They are unique in one aspect: Unlike most freshwater fish, the silvery minnow directly spawns into the water in the spring, and then the fertilized eggs slip downstream. This technique, called pelagic broadcasting, is much more common for marine creatures. The silvery minnow is the last of five species that spawn this way living in the Rio Grande. One is extinct entirely. The others survive in different rivers, but no longer in the Rio Grande.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team pulls seine nets through almost any pool left in the drying riverbed. The rescuers check each pool for silvery minnow. They throw back the other species of fish. The pools are often hot and poorly oxygenated. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

In earlier times, shallow wetlands emerged at the river’s bend. In slow eddies and silty bottoms, the silvery minnow was prolific. The species follows the river’s rhythms, waiting to spawn when the spike of snowmelt pulses.

But federal and local irrigation projects straightened the river, making it deeper and faster. They removed the bump of snowmelt, storing it in reservoirs for crops. The construction of Elephant Butte and other dams prevented fish from moving upstream. Eggs and larvae drift downstream to face predators or cold water in Elephant Butte. The river carries others into irrigation ditches or dry streambeds, where fish may hatch, but there is little chance for returning to the river to spawn.

In 1994, after years of steep declines, the silvery minnow was listed as endangered at the federal level.

Now, the fish are primarily found in a stretch of river between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte — if there’s enough river to support silvery minnow.

“If some catastrophic event occurs, they’re a lot more vulnerable because it’s more likely to affect all of them,” Archdeacon said.

Silvery minnow are primarily found in a stretch of the Rio Grande between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte — if there’s enough river to support the fish. “If some catastrophic event occurs, they’re a lot more vulnerable because it’s more likely to affect all of them,” said Thomas Archdeacon, left. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

For 25 years, the San Acacia Reach has dried nearly every summer when farmers divert water for crops, according to documentation held by the Rio Grande Compact Commission.

Archdeacon said he doesn’t have any answers as to why the silvery minnow population has better reproduction and recruitment chances in the reach, compared with upstream in Albuquerque, where the river has only dried once in the last 40 years — in the summer of 2022.

“My guess is that the eggs float downstream, and the channel is wider — more sand bed — and shallower, which is just better for reproduction,” he said.

Drought complicates recovery efforts on all sides. In a good year like 2017, the fish population boomed into the millions. But only a tiny number lasts long enough to continue the next generation. And in lousy years, which are more frequent, that dwindling number of spawners only shrinks. In 2018 and again in 2022, the river dried before the fish could spawn.

Even when thousands of fish spawn simultaneously, only a few successfully carry on to the next generations.

Some of the pools range in depth from a few feet to a few inches. Under the June sun, they rapidly shrink. Archdeacon noted that the pools were appearing earlier each year, and the river is drying faster. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Federal agencies partnered with hatcheries and the ABQ BioPark to breed other silvery minnows, in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, both for release into the wild and as a bank against inbreeding when wild populations crash.

“Genetically speaking, it’s keeping them from going down a hole they can’t dig themselves out of,” Archdeacon said.

But dumping hatchery fish into the Rio Grande is not a silver bullet. Recovery means a wild, sustainable population, which Archdeacon added would require “serious large-scale habitat restoration” and sufficient water flows to spawn.

If 1 million to 2 million fish were upstream and successfully spawning each spring, he estimated, then fish rescue may be worth it.

But that’s not the reality.

In 2022, early drying wiped out egg collection efforts. With the 2020 and 2021 generations reaching the end of their lifespan, the 2023 generation will be vital for keeping the hatchery populations alive.

“But there’s also nothing that prevents this from happening again,” Archdeacon said.

Lyle Thomas places a silvery minnow found in a pool into an oxygenated holding tank on the back of the carts. The fish are transported to better environments, but their survival rate is low, since the fish are often unhealthy from being in the pools. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Dry beds 

Nothing dies quietly in the riverbed. Dozens of blue catfish, golden green smallmouth buffalo and red shiners grow brown as they writhe in the silt, seeking a pool. Some red remains as their gill slits flare, and they twist and slam their bodies into the mud.

Their moments of frantic slapping stretch into long, excruciating minutes. It takes nearly an hour before some of the larger fish heave their last breath.

When the pools are large enough, maybe between ankle- and knee-deep, the team can throw the fish back in to survive in shrinking pools. But when the pools shrink to just the barest puddle, it means throwing the fish that aren’t silvery minnows out into the mud.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife team measures the temperatures of each pond, noting what kind of conditions the rescued fish are coming from. At right, Mallory Boro discards a fish from the net, when the pool is too small to return it, searching for silvery minnow. (Photos by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Archdeacon cradles a native smallmouth buffalo. “If the river wasn’t dry, nothing would eat them,” he said, putting it onto the ground. “I’d guess this one is about 10-years-old.”

The minnow, unlike the other fish trapped in the pools, is on the federal list of endangered species — that’s why there’s a team to save them.

Human choice is central to what’s happening here, Archdeacon said, just as people make decisions to use water elsewhere, and this dry bed is a consequence.

“You’re choosing people over fish,” he said. “You cannot paint this into a rosy picture. If you’ve been out here, it’s not good.”

Some of the fish rescuers said they’ve become somewhat desensitized to the mass death of other fish. They have a job to do.

Still, it doesn’t really get easy, either.

“I think about this 365 days a year,” Archdeacon said. “I can’t sleep at night. It’s pretty bad.”

From left, a gizzard shad in the streambed. At right, fish species of all kinds turn muddy and brown from struggling to find water in the San Acacia reach, dying by the hundreds. (Photos by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Driving out of the sand bed of San Acacia, away from fish gasping in the riverbed, irrigation canals criss-cross under roadways, full and glistening in the sun. Fields of green alfalfa zip by, watered by pivot sprinklers.

Little fish, big controversy

The silvery minnow has been central to a slew of lawsuits against the federal government, at district and appellate levels.

Out of a case brought jointly by New Mexico, irrigation districts and conservation groups, a 10th Circuit Appeals ruling in 1999 found that top U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials at the time had not followed procedures in securing habitat for the fish. Three years later, the same court found the agency was dragging its feet in providing needed documentation, writing: “These delays and irrational decisions come at the expense of the silvery minnow, officially endangered for nearly eight years.”

More years of litigation resulted in a 2020 federal appeals court decision upholding a lower court’s determination that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not allowed to provide additional water for endangered species and was not required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change its practices.

In 2021, WildEarth Guardians — a western conservation nonprofit headquartered in Santa Fe — filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. government over a 10-year plan between agencies to ensure they wouldn’t harm endangered species.

That plan, set up just a few years before the lawsuit, was the result of a consultation on a series of reclamation projects and water operations in habitats for the silvery minnow, Southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo — all species with federal protections in the Middle Rio Grande. 

Keegan Epping checks a seine net for any live silvery minnows from a pull. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

The nonprofit wrote a letter addressed to federal agencies and New Mexico state department leaders, announcing their intention to sue:

“We hope that this warning (both the legal notice and the dire conditions on the river) will provide water managers, and quite frankly all people, an incentive to rethink water management as it has existed this past century and chart a new course for this dying river,” the letter said. “The Rio Grande is too valuable to lose.”

After talks and negotiations, further legal action is being taken.

In late November 2022, WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit in federal District Court, alleging that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation violated the Endangered Species Act with the 10-year plan.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife found that the bureau did not jeopardize any endangered species in its 2016 plan. WildEarth Guardians alleges that the decision was “arbitrary,” relies on “vague, uncertain and unenforceable” conservation measures, and failed to consider climate change’s impact. 

The current plan wouldn’t meaningfully recover species, the nonprofit said.

WildEarth Guardians asked the court to toss out the 10-year plan and require the agencies to reexamine projects and operations on the Rio Grande.

When the water dries fish gasp for hours in the streambed until they die.(Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

The silvery minnow’s population is worse off than when it was listed three decades ago, said Daniel Timmons, the river programs director and Rio Grande waterkeeper for WildEarth Guardians.

“Actually limiting the amount of water that’s being taken out of the river in order to make sure there’s enough water left for fish is an action that the federal government has continued to refuse to do,” Timmons said.

Federal management of dams, diversions and depletions is the primary threat that removes water from the river ecosystem, he said.

“It’s not just about the silvery minnow. It’s about the river as a whole,” Timmons said. “That’s the piece that the federal government to date has really failed to grasp, is the importance of the species as an indicator of an entire river system in crisis and collapse.”

Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.

Read more: ‘Not an object to be bartered,’ the Rio Grande is lifeblood for the land

Monday Briefing: #Water issues everywhere — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

In the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the newsletter on the Alamosa Citizen website. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Rio Grande Basin recovery

The Rio Grande Water Conservation District is moving forward on two major fronts: It’s ready to open the application window for Upper Rio Grande irrigators to apply for some of the $30 million set aside under state legislation, SB 22-028, to permanently retire irrigated acres in the San Luis Valley. The money sits in the Groundwater Compact Compliance and Sustainability Fund, and Valley farmers can submit applications beginning Thursday to access it. The RGWCD is also moving to implement its Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management for its Subdistrict 1. The board of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District is accepting public comments on the amended plan, with a public hearing slated for July 14. Both the Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund and the Fourth Amended Plan of Water Management are key to the Valley’s efforts to restore and bring sustainability to the Rio Grande Basin.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

2. Douglas County plans for water commission

Up north, Douglas County commissioners this week will continue their discussions around establishing a Douglas County Water Commission to assist in the broader effort to bring more water into the sprawling Front Range county. Douglas County has been reaching out to water providers and residents to pitch the idea and plans this week to continue those conversations around initially establishing a Technical Advisory Committee. In the background of it all is Douglas County’s interest in Renewable Water Resources and the Rio Grande Basin as a source of water. We’ll keep tracking to see where it all goes.

Graphic credit: Alamosa Citizen

3. The Valley’s water checkmate

The various county commissions in the San Luis Valley have been working to put in place their own checkmate when it comes to pumping water out of the Upper Rio Grande Basin like the RWR proposal to Douglas County. We first told you about it back in January, and now Alamosa County last week adopted the “Intergovernmental Agreement to Protect Water Resources” and the Valley’s other county and municipal governments are expected to become signatories to the agreement as well. The agreement establishes the San Luis Valley Joint Planning Area to protect surface water and groundwater resources. The essence of the agreement is that anyone looking to transfer water out of the San Luis Valley would have to apply for a 1041 permit from each of the county and municipal governments and get sign off from all local governments to move a project forward. “This might be our best opportunity to stop water exportation,” Saguache County Commissioner Tom McCracken, who chairs the San Luis Valley Regional Council of Governments board, said at the time of our first article. “I’m feeling really excited about it.”

Rio Grande and Pecos River basins. Map credit: By Kmusser – Own work, Elevation data from SRTM, drainage basin from GTOPO [1], U.S. stream from the National Atlas [2], all other features from Vector Map., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Moving #Water Around #Colorado is Fraught Project — The Buzz

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

Click the link to read the article on The Buzz website (Floyd Ciruli):

Whether it’s Colorado River water to the Platte for the Front Range or the San Luis Valley aquifer to the Denver suburbs, the quest to move water from the source to the population in Colorado never ends.

Jerd Smith in Fresh Water News (6-7-23) describes the latest effort.

“Real estate developers interested in exporting water they own from San Luis Valley to fast-growing, water-short Douglas County have contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for the Parker Water & Sanitation District board, one of the largest water providers in the county.

“Such large contributions are unusual in low-profile water district board elections, where candidates often provide their own funding for their campaigns of a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands, according to Redd, Manager of Parker Water. “That’s a lot of money for a water board race,” Redd said.”

Renewable Water Resources, the investor group, continues to search for a local government to help on costs, but I said:

“Floyd Ciruli, a pollster and veteran observer of Colorado politics who has done extensive work in the past for Douglas County water providers, said the RWR initiative faces an uphill battle.

“‘They have resistance at both ends.’ Ciruli said, referring to opposition in the San Luis Valley and in the metro area. ‘It’s interesting that [RWR] is contributing to these boards. It’s a real long shot.'”

Source: Developers behind San Luis Valley water export proposal contribute thousands to Douglas County water district races: behind-san-luis-valley-water-export-proposal-contribute-thousands-to-douglas-county-water-board- races/

Water year highlight: Terrace Reservoir spills over — @AlamosaCitizen #runoff #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Owen Woods):

COLORADO Division 3 Engineer Craig Cotten stood above the Terrace Reservoir dam early Tuesday morning watching the water fall into the concrete spillway below. He took his phone out and snapped some pictures, smiling the whole time. He introduced himself to a few people who watched the waterfall, too. 

Cotten said that in 2019, Terrace Reservoir, located northwest of Capulin, got just below the lip of the spillway, but didn’t quite spill over. This was cool, he said. 

The greenish water of the reservoir stretched out past the bend, up to the Alamosa River. Along the north and south shores, stands of aspen trees were submerged. Some of them are almost entirely underwater. Further upriver, most of the cottonwoods along the Alamosa River were flooded, surreally resembling a Florida swamp. 

The word around the Valley is that nobody can remember when a spillover like this last occurred. Cotten admitted that it was probably sometime in the 1980s, but he wasn’t quite sure. 

When this water year began in October 2022, Terrace was sitting with a mere 3,136 acre-feet of storage. Today, June 13, 2023, Terrace is spilling over with 15,251 acre-feet of storage. Terrace has a total storage capacity of 19,195 acre-feet. 

Looking at Colorado’s Division of Water Resources tracking of Terrace’s storage since 1989, no data point since then comes even close to this week’s water levels.

Similarly, Cotten and Valley water managers have been paying attention to Platoro Dam and Reservoir on the Conejos River. It too is nearing capacity from this spring’s snowmelt but Cotten doubted it will actually spill over. Platoro has a storage capacity of 59,570 acre-feet.

Developers behind Renewable Water Resources contribute thousands to Douglas County #water district races — @WaterEdCO #SanLuisValley #RioGrande

The northern end of Colorado’s San Luis Valley has a raw, lonely beauty that rivals almost any place in the North American West. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Real estate developers interested in exporting water they own from the San Luis Valley to fast-growing, water-short Douglas County have contributed thousands of dollars to candidates for the Parker Water & Sanitation District Board, one of the largest water providers in the county.

Last month, Robert Kennah won a seat on the Parker water board and had received two donations from partners in Renewable Water Resources, a real estate development group whose principals include former Colorado Governor Bill Owens. The contributions were made by RWR principals John Kim and Hugh Bernardi, according to filings at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

A second RWR-backed candidate, Kory Nelson, also received $10,000 in donations from RWR, but did not win a seat on the Parker water board. Nelson is contesting the results of the election.
If Nelson had won, RWR would have ties to three members of the five-member board, according to Parker Water and Sanitation District Manager Ron Redd.

Parker board member Brooke Booth is related by marriage to RWR principal Sean Tonner, Redd said.

Big money

Neither Booth, Kennah nor RWR responded to a request for comment. Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Such large contributions are unusual in low-profile water district board elections, where candidates often provide their own funding for their campaigns of a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands, according to Redd.

“That’s a lot of money for a water board race,” Redd said.

The donations come after Douglas County Commissioners last year declined to invest in RWR’s controversial $400 million San Luis Valley pipeline proposal using COVID-19 relief funding. Douglas County Commissioners Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon voted against the funding, while Commissioner George Teal supported the proposal.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Among other objections, the county said that RWR’s claim that there was enough water in the San Luis Valley’s aquifers to support the export plan, was incorrect, based on hydrologic models presented over the course of several public work sessions.

The county’s attorneys also said the proposal did not comply with the Colorado Water Plan, which favors projects that don’t dry up productive farmland and which have local support.

Opposition to the proposal in the San Luis Valley is widespread. The Rio Grande Water Conservation District in Alamosa argues that no water should be taken from the San Luis Valley because it is already facing major water shortages due to the ongoing drought and over-pumping of its aquifers by growers. The valley faces a looming well shutdown if it can’t reduce its water use enough to bring its fragile water system back into balance.

Out of compliance

That lack of compliance means that Douglas County would likely not win any potential state funding for the export proposal.

Last year, after the county rejected the San Luis Valley proposal, RWR said it would continue to work with Douglas County to see if its objections could be overcome. It has also maintained that the agricultural water it owns in the San Luis Valley would be pulled from a portion of the valley’s aquifer system that is renewable, minimizing any damage that might occur from the project, and that even though farmlands would be dried up when the water is exported, the valley’s water situation would benefit from a reduction in agricultural water use.

RWR’s water rights, however, have not yet been converted to municipal use, as is required under Colorado law. That process could take years to complete and would likely be fiercely contested by farm interests in the San Luis Valley, as well as other opponents.

Still RWR continues to deepen its ties to Douglas County water districts. RWR principal John Kim, one of the contributors to the Parker water board elections, won a seat last year on the Roxborough Water and Sanitation District Board, according to the district’s website. Kim lives in that district. He declined a request for comment.

Douglas County government does not deliver water to its residents, but relies on more than a dozen individual communities and water districts to provide that service.
Fast-growing towns and water districts early on simply drilled wells into aquifers, but the aquifers have been declining and water districts have been forced to implement aggressive water conservation programs, water reuse programs, and use of local surface supplies to meet their needs.

Lawn sizes in Castle Rock are sharply limited to save water, with some homeowners opting to use artificial turf for convenience and to help keep water bills low. Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Jerd Smith, Fresh Water News

No support

Two of the largest water providers in Douglas County, Parker Water and Sanitation District and Castle Rock Water, have said they would not support the RWR proposal because they had already spent millions of dollars developing new, more sustainable, politically acceptable projects. Those projects include a South Platte River pipeline that is being developed in partnership with farmers in the northeastern corner of the state.

A host of politicians across the political spectrum came out against the RWR proposal as well, including Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Lauren Boebert, who represents the San Luis Valley.

Still, Douglas County’s Teal, who has also received funding from RWR principals, said he believes the RWR water could have a role to play in helping ensure the county has enough water to grow over the next 50 years.

“I don’t know [if we have enough water,]” Teal said. “That is part of what makes me wonder if we do have enough. Water projects take time. There is no snapping your fingers and then delivering 10,000 acre-feet of water.”

But Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas says the county’s water providers are well prepared for the future and there is no need to spend money on a project that has little public support and which may never come to fruition.

“We are secure without it,” Thomas said. “But I think that RWR is doing everything it can to get Douglas County to buy into their scheme.”

Long shot?

Floyd Ciruli, a pollster and veteran observer of Colorado politics who has done extensive work in the past for Douglas County water providers, said the RWR initiative faces an uphill battle.

“They have resistance at both ends,” Ciruli said, referring to opposition in the San Luis Valley and in the metro area. “It’s interesting that [RWR] is contributing to these boards. It’s is a real long shot.”

Parker Water and Sanitation District says it plans to continue its development of the South Platte pipeline project in northeastern Colorado and to craft deals with farmers so that agricultural water won’t be removed from farmlands, helping preserve the rural economy there. Most of Parker’s water rights have already been approved for municipal use, according to Redd.

“We’re concerned because Parker water has no interest in the RWR project and we basically stated that a year ago when Douglas County was looking at their project. It has no clear path to being done. It’s years if not decades before they could even get started,” Redd said.

“We have a clear path. We already have the water. I am not sure what the intent was to try and get people on our board. It is just concerning.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at or @jerd_smith.

Potential Water Delivery Routes. Since this water will be exported from the San Luis Valley, the water will be fully reusable. In addition to being a renewable water supply, this is an important component of the RWR water supply and delivery plan. Reuse allows first-use water to be used to extinction, which means that this water, after first use, can be reused multiple times. Graphic credit: Renewable Water Resources

#Water levels high across region, #drought conditions favorable — The #PagosaSprings Sun #SanJuanRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article on the Pagosa Springs Sun website (Josh Pike). Here’s an excerpt:

River levels across the region remain above average while the snowpack on Wolf Creek Pass was 79 percent of median as of June 7, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Water and Climate Center’s snowpack report. The USDA report indicates that the pass had 10.9 inches of snow water equivalent on Wednesday, June 7, below the median of 13.8 inches.

Area rivers also remain high, with the San Juan River in Pagosa Springs running at 2,470 cubic feet per second (cfs) at 9 a.m. on June 7, down from a nighttime peak of 2,930 cfs at 2 a.m., according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The mean flow for June 7 is 1,550 cfs, while last year’s flow on the date was 1,100 cfs, according to the USGS. The San Juan River has remained consistently above the median flow for the last 30 days, only briefly dipping below the median on June 4.

Other regional rivers are also high, with the Animas River in Durango flowing at 4,410 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, well above the mean flow of 3,100 cfs for that date based on USGS data. The Piedra River near Arboles was flowing at 1,980 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS, compared to a mean flow of 1,170. The Los Pinos River above Vallecito Reservoir near Bayfield was flowing at 1,090 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS, above the mean flow of 670 cfs. The Animas, San Juan, Los Pinos and Piedra rivers all saw sharp increases in flow levels on Wednes- day morning due to recent pre- cipitation, but, even before that, remained at or near median flows.

The Rio Grande River near Cerro, N.M., was flowing at 2,150 cfs at 9 a.m. on June 7, according to the USGS. This is considerably above the mean flow of 1,050 for the date. Cerro is the closest USGS monitoring station to the Rio Grande headwaters that provides cfs data. It is located to the north of Taos, N.M.

Colorado Drought Monitor map June 6, 2023.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) pro- vides another view on current climate conditions, indicating that Archuleta County is not currently experiencing drought. The NIDIS indicates that April was the eighth driest in 129 years, with 1.3 less inches of precipitation than normal, but that January to April of 2023 has been the 26th wettest in the past 129 years with 2.25 more inches of precipitation than normal…

Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) District Engineer/Manager Justin Ramsey also noted the wet conditions and stated that all PAWSD reservoirs are full. He added that there has not yet been a call on water in the Fourmile Creek drainage, meaning that water is continuing to flow into Lake Hatcher. Ramsey stated he does not expect a call before early July given current conditions, which he noted would be significantly later than the median call date of approximately June 4. He added that last year the call of Fourmile was made in the middle of May.

Rivers and streams begin to peak — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley #RioGrande #runoff

Rio Grande River at South Fork 062023. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE cooler, cloudy days in May and early June have helped maintain the snowpack in the high country and extended the spring runoff on the Upper Rio Grande and Conejos River systems. 

“It is difficult to tell if we are going to see a higher peak in the near future than what we have seen so far this spring, but it is definitely possible on some of the river systems,” Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources told Alamosa Citizen this week. 

“I am fairly certain that we will see a higher combined flow (Conejos plus Platoro storage) in the near future on the Conejos River than what we have seen before,” Cotten said.

Terrace Reservoir

Terrace Reservoir in Conejos County is close to being full now, and Platoro Reservoir will get close to full from runoff, Cotten said. 

Platoro Reservoir. Photo credit: Rio de la Vista

Neither reservoir has filled in the last 20 years, Cotten said. But this year is different, giving indication to the amount of water in the 2023 spring runoff.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a warmer trend ahead. There’s an expectation of an El Niño summer materializing, which would bring a warmer and dry July and August.

#Runoff and May rains bring high rivers and flood warnings — @AlamosaCitizen #RioGrande #SanLuisValley

San Antonio River May 2023. Photo credit: Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

HIGH rivers, rising natural surface water in agricultural and livestock fields, country roads washing out – there’s water everywhere across the San Luis Valley.

“We would like to remind people to be aware and prepared for voluntary evacuations if necessary,” Conejos County Sheriff Garth Crowther said in a released statement as Conejos County went under a county flood watch this week.

Both the Rio Grande and Conejos River are running dangerously high and fast. The Rio Grande at the Del Norte gauging station shows a 10-day streamflow average of 4,788 cubic feet per second. The Conejos River, meanwhile, was standing at five feet and the San Antonio River, one of its tributaries east of Manassa along Colorado Highway 142, was flowing at a healthy 1,224 cfs with swampy fields dotting the road to San Luis.

“Still seeing snowpack in the mountains. It feels like it’s going to be a year like we haven’t had in 20 years,” said Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson.

The month of May has exceeded what’s normal for rain accumulation, with .68 inches of precipitation measured so far. A historically normal May would see a bit over a half-inch of accumulated moisture. 

The May rains timed themselves to healthy spring runoffs across the San Juans, which experienced snowfall totals at 200 percent and above of normal. It’s the San Juans that affect the Upper Rio Grande and Conejos streamflows.

On the recreation front, the expected 200 or so participants in this weekend’s Valley Bottom Rio Trio adventure race will find high water to canoe through on the second leg of the race. It’ll be the strongest and highest streamflow that canoers have had to deal with in the three years of the adventure race.

Minor flooding conditions along the banks of the Rio Grande through Alamosa also had organizers re-route the overall race course.

For Valley residents who may find themselves in flood watch or flood warning conditions, Conejos County offered these tips:

  • Gather emergency supplies, including non-perishable food and water. Store at least 1 gallon of drinking water per day for each person and pet.
  • If it looks like you need to evacuate, turn off all utilities at the main switch and close the main gas valve.
  • Leave areas subject to flooding such as low spots, canyons, washes etc.
Photo credit: Alamosa Citiizen

2023 #COleg: Agrivoltaics & aquavoltaics, too — @BigPivots #SanLuisValley #ActOnClimate #RioGrande

Canal in the San Luis Valley. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Colorado will probe the pairing of solar panels with canals and reservoirs. Can solar integrated into agriculture help solve the San Luis Valley’s water woes?

Agrivoltaics—the marriage of solar photovoltaics and agriculture production— has been filtering into public consciousness, if still more as an abstraction than as a reality. In Colorado, other than Jack’s Solar Garden near Longmont, there’s little to see.

Aquavoltics? The idea of putting solar panels above water? Similarly thin. You have to travel to North Park to see the solar panels above the small water-treatment pond for Walden.

SB23-092, a bill passed on the final day of Colorado’s 2023 legislative session, [ed. Signed by Governor Polis May 18, 2023] orders study of both concepts. In the case of aquavoltaics, the bill headed toward the desk of Gov. Jared Polis authorizes the Colorado Water Conservation Board to study the feasibility of using solar panels over or floating on, irrigation canals or reservoirs. The bill also authorizes the state’s Department of Agriculture to award grants for new or ongoing agrivoltaics demonstration projects.

Still another section requires the Colorado Department of Agriculture, in consultation with related state agencies, to begin examining how farmers and ranchers can be integrated into carbon markets. The specific assignment is to “examine greenhouse gas sequestration opportunities in the agricultural sector, including the use of dry digesters, and the potential for creating and offering a certified greenhouse gas offset program and credit instruments.”

While Democrats and Republicans got angry with each other in some cases, in this case there was broad comity. The primary Democratic sponsors were from Denver and Boulder County, and the Republicans from the San Luis Valley and Delta. Votes were lopsided in favor.

The agrivoltaics idea was originally included in the 2022 session in a big suitcase of ideas sponsored by Sen. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver. It fell just short of getting across the finish line.

This past summer, Sen. Cleve Simpson, a Republican from the San Luis Valley whose district now sprawls across southwestern Colorado, took keen interest—and for very good reason. A fourth-generation native of the San Luis Valley, his day job there is general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, whose farming members must cut back water use so that Colorado can comply with the Rio Grande Compact with New Mexico and Texas. It will be a tough challenge—and he’s trying to figure out how to leave his communities as economically whole as might be possible.

This canal in the South Platte Valley east of Firestone, north of Denver, could conceivably also be a place to erect solar panels without loss of agricultural productivity. Photo/Allen Best

The aquavoltaics idea is new to this year’s bill, though.

Hansen, who grew up along the edge of the declining Ogallala Aquifer in Kansas, said his study of water conservation efforts around the world found that aquavoltaics was one of the most advantageous ways to reduce evaporation from canals and reservoirs. Doing so with solar panels, he said in an April interview, produces a “huge number of compounded value streams.”

Covering the water can reduce evaporation by 5% to 10%, he explained, while the cooler water can cause solar panels to produce electricity more efficiently, with a gain of 5% to 10%. Electricity can in turn be used to defray pumping costs.

Solar panels in cooler climates can actually produce electricity more efficiently, which is why solar developers have looked eagerly at potential of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. At more than 7,000 feet in elevation, the valley is high enough to be far cooler than the Arizona deserts but with almost as much sunshine.

Walden became Colorado’s first location for aquavoltaics when solar panels were placed atop the pond at the water-treatment plant in 2018. Christmas 2020 photo/Allen Best

Colorado already has limited deployment of aquavoltaics. Walden in 2018 became the state’s first location to deploy solar panels above a small pond used in conjunction water treatment. The 208 panels provide roughly half the electricity needed to operate the plant. The town of 600 people, which is located at an elevation of 8,100 feet in North Park, paid for half the $400,000 cost, with a state grant covering the other.

Other water and sewage treatment plants, including Fort Collins, Boulder and Steamboat Springs, also employ renewable generation, but not necessarily on top of water, as is done with aquavoltaics.

Hansen said he believes Colorado has significant potential for deploying floating solar panels on reservoirs or panels installed above irrigation canals. “There is significant opportunity in just the Denver Water reservoirs,” he said. “Plus you add some of the canals in the state, and there are hundreds of megawatts of opportunity here.”

Bighorn, Colorado’s largest solar project, has a 300-megawatt generating capacity on land in Pueblo adjacent to the Rocky Mountain Steel plant  Comanche’s two remaining units have a combined capacity of 1,250 megawatts, although both are scheduled to be retired by 2031.

Why now and not a decade ago for aquavoltaics? Because, says Hansen, most of the best sites for solar were still available. Because aquavoltaics has an incremental cost, land-based solar was the low-hanging fruit.

Now, as land sites are taken, the economics look better, says Hansen, who has a degree in economics. Plus, with solar prices dropping 10% annually, the economics look even better. The Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in August 2022 delivers even more incentives. “I think there will be more and more aquavoltaic projects that will pencil out,” he said.

Arizona water providers have resisted aquavoltaics but are now taking a second look. The Gila River Indian Community announced last year that it is building a canal-covering pilot project south of Phoenix with aid of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “This project will provide an example of new technology that can help the Southwest address the worst drought in over 1,200 years,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the tribe.

When completed, the canal-covered solar project will be the first in the United States. But both the Gila and a $20 million pilot project launched this year by California’s Turklock Irrigation District are preceded by examples in India.

Officials with the Central Arizona Project, the largest consumer of electricity in Arizona, responsible for delivering Colorado River water through 336 miles of canals to Phoenix and Tucson, will be following closely the new projects in Arizona and California, according to a report in the Arizona Republic.

Byron Kominek on a February afternoon at the site of his late grandfather’s farm, which he calls Jack’s Solar Garden. Photo/Allen Best

In its final legislative committee hearing in late April, the bill got robust support. Both the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union voiced support.

So did a Nature Conservancy representative. “If we want to solve the climate crisis while at the same time not exacerbating biodiversity and farmland loss, we have to think creatively,” testified Duncan Gilchrist.

“This bill has nothing but winners,” said Jan Rose, representing the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate.

The most probing questions were directed to Byron Kominek, the owner and manager of Jack’s Solar Garden. There for the last several summers, vegetable row crops have been grown in conjunction with dozens of solar arrays assembled on a portion of the 24-acre farm. He readily receives reporters and all others, casting the seeds of this idea across Colorado and beyond.

The questions were directed by State Sen. Rod Pelton, whose one district covers close to a quarter of all of Colorado’s landscape, the thinly populated southeast quadrant. A farmer and rancher from the Cheyenne Wells area, Pelton wondered how high off the ground the panels were and what kind of racking system was high enough to address the issue of cattle rubbing against them?

The question, though, jibes with what Mike Kruger, chief executive of the Colorado Solar and Storage Association, sees for agrivoltaics. “I don’t think it will ever be ‘amber waves of grain’ under panels,” he said in April. “It will more likely be cattle and sheep grazing.”

Hansen, in his wrap-up comments before the committee in April, talked about different places needing different approaches depending upon climate zones, topography, growing conditions and other factors. That, he said, was the intent of the studies: to figure out how to maximize potential, to get it right.

NREL researcher Jordan Macknick and Michael Lehan discuss solar panel orientation and spacing. The project is seeking to improve the environmental compatibility and mutual benefits of solar development with agriculture and native landscapes. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Can we engineer our way out of #drought? The Low Flow Conveyance Channel suggests the answer is “no” — The Land Desk @Land_Desk #RioGrande

The lower end of the Low Flow Conveyance Channel as it fades away miles above its intended destination of Elephant Butte Reservoir. Source: Google Earth.

Click the link to read the article on The Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

A few months ago a reader and Western water expert clued me in on recent developments related to the Low Flow Conveyance Channel. Had she told me this in person I probably would have blushed and fumbled around for an intelligent response before finally resigning and asking: 

Say, what?! 

Because, well, I had no friggin’ idea what she was talking about. 

And yet, I should have known, because the Low Flow Conveyance Channel — or LFCC — is a classic example of how folks in the West try to engineer their way out of the region’s aridity and, ultimately, fail. 

The LFCC might be considered the infrastructure love-child from the coupling of the Rio Grande Compact and, well, silt — a lot of it. The compact, signed in 1938, divided the waters of the Rio Grande between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Whereas the Colorado River Compact allocates a set amount of water to each group of states, the Rio Grande Compact uses a more complicated distribution formula based on flows at specific river gages. 

Among other things, it requires New Mexico to deliver a certain percentage of the Rio Grande’s flow to Elephant Butte Reservoir, where it is stored for Texas. This is strange, I know, because the reservoir is in New Mexico, not Texas, and not even that close to the latter state. But these water compacts can be like that. New Mexico can accrue up to 200,000 acre feet of water debt to Texas and still be in compact compliance, giving the upstreamers some breathing room during dry years. 

The Compact went into effect in 1939, a dry year on the Rio Grande; 1940 was similarly meagre, with a peak streamflow under 3,000 cfs at the Otowi Bridge gage. But the Rio flooded, big time, in 1941 and 1942, peaking above 22,000 cfs at Otowi. That kind of big water tends to pick up big silt — especially from the Rio Puerco, a Rio Grande tributary — and when the river started losing energy at the slackwater above Elephant Butte Reservoir, the sediment fell out of the flow, accumulating on the river bed. If you’ve ever rafted the lower San Juan River, you’ve experienced a similarly silty phenomenon below Slickhorn Canyon.

This shows peak streamflows on the Rio Grande way upstream of the Low Flow Conveyance Channel. But it illustrates how gargantuan the 1941-42 floods that led to the channel’s construction were. USGS.

The silt filled in and plugged the existing river channel, sending the water out across a much wider, shallower plain, and forced the railroad to raise its tracks repeatedly along a section that crosses the river. During ensuing low-water years, the river was so spread out that most of it evaporated or seeped into the silt or was sucked up by encroaching tamarisk before reaching the reservoir. Before long, New Mexico was deep in water-debt to Texas, and in 1951 owed the downstream state 325,000 acre-feet, putting New Mexico out of compliance with the compact. 

This is where the engineers come in. In order to get the river to Texas they would divert it around the river bed, kind of like providing fish passage around dams for salmon. And they would do this by building a deep, narrow, 75-mile long ditch from San Acacia to the reservoir that would carry water and silt more efficiently and result in less evaporation. It would be called the Low Flow Conveyance Channel because it would convey the river during low flow. Construction began in 1951 and the LFCC went into operation in 1959. 

For the next two decades, the LFCC did what it was supposed to do: Carry up to 2,000 cfs of the river’s flow around the river, itself, and deposit it in Elephant Butte Reservoir, where it was stored for Texas. New Mexico’s substantial water debt slowly shrank, finally disappearing in 1972. Despite the channel’s name, during this time it carried most of the river’s water during high flows and low, thus depriving the riparian zone of its life-giving river and altering the ecosystem. 

1983 – Color photo of Glen Canyon Dam spillway failure from cavitation, via

The 1980s were notoriously wet years for most of the Southwest and somewhat perilous times for the infrastructure built to help states comply with water compacts. Glen Canyon Dam, constructed primarily to allow Upper Colorado River Basin states to deliver the obligated amount of water to the Lower Basin, was pushed to the brink by massive snowmelt in 1983 and, to a lesser extent, in 1984. 

The Rio Grande ran large during those years, too. Elephant Butte Reservoir filled up completely, inundating the lower reaches of the LFCC. Silt happens, it turns out. When the reservoir levels declined several years later, the last 15 miles of the channel had essentially disappeared under a thick layer of sediment. No longer able to carry water to the reservoir, the LFCC was shut down in 1985 and hasn’t been used to convey the Rio Grande since. 

But the first 60 miles or so of the LFCC remains, running alongside the Rio Grande like its more linear twin, separated by an earthen levee built to keep a flooding river from inundating and wrecking the canal. Bizarrely, the river channel is about 10 feet or more above the canal, due to all of that sedimentation over the years, making flooding more likely. And that means more engineering, and maintenance dollars, are required to protect the engineered canal. In a weird Anthropocene-esque twist, the canal now serves an environmental purpose: It catches  and conveys irrigation runoff and groundwater to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, keeping the wetlands there wet.

The Rio Grande at the key Otowi Bridge gage is looking pretty darned healthy this year … so far. But the snow’s melting fast.

As Rio Grande flows continue to decline and New Mexico piles up water debts to Texas, the possibility of reopening the LFCC grows. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which acquired the northern end of the channel from the feds, has talked about using it again to get more river water downstream to Texas (thereby freeing up more Rio Grande water for New Mexico irrigators). And the state engineer’s office asked lawmakers to budget $30 million for the LFCC. 

But it would take far more than that to clean out, rehabilitate, and extend the lower section so it could reach the shrinking reservoir. And even then, it could only be used on a limited basis, since diverting the entire flow of the river would run up against endangered species laws and other environmental concerns. Elizabeth Miller wrote a strong piece for NM In Depth about efforts to reopen the channel and environmentalists’ concerns. It’s well worth a read. 

For now, however, the Low Flow Conveyance Channel will stand as a reminder that while engineering our way out of a short-term drought may be somewhat effective, it usually doesn’t work in the long-term. To survive ongoing aridification we must dispense with dams and canals and rethink our relationship to this landscape and overhaul the way we use diminishing amounts of water. 

Elephant Butte Reservoir back in the day nearly full

The #RioGrande is FLOWING in #Albuquerque! — @GGutierrez_48 #runoff

Dust on snow seems to be increasing the chances of #RioGrande drying this year through #Albuquerque — John Fleck (InkStain) #aridification

Rio Grande overbanking May 3, 2023 finally topped my little bike trail north of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge. ~4k cubic feet per second. Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

We have a chance this year to watch a fascinating intersection of climate-change driven changes in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque as filtered through both physical infrastructure and what we call the “institutional hydrograph”.


Dust on snow is likely to accelerate Rio Grande headwaters snowmelt, meaning all that stored water comes off earlier. With nowhere to store it (see below, it’s an issue of both rules and physical infrastructure problems), we’ll be operating this year in a run-of-the-river situation on the middle Rio Grande through Albuquerque. Even though there’s still a lot of snow right now, once it comes off we’ll be down to base flow on the Rio Grande. Absent good summer rains, the river could dry through Albuquerque again this year.


The driver is a phenomenon researchers have identified in the past two decades called “dust on snow“. It’s when dry spring winds sweep across the arid uplands of, in our case, the Colorado Plateau, kicking up a layer or layers of dust that is then deposited atop the mountain snows in the high country. You can get multiple dust  layers, and when the melt reaches them, the snow warms up and melts quicker. There’s a climate change connection to all of this, as hotter, drier springs seem to lead to more dust (which makes intuitive sense, and is discussed in Painter, Thomas H. et al. “Response of Colorado River runoff to dust radiative forcing in snow.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (2010): 17125 – 17130.

We’ve got that going on this year in the Rio Grande headwaters. From this morning’s Downtown Albuquerque News:


In the “before times” (before the creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in the early 20th century, which led to the construction of El Vado Dam) communities in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande depended on the run of the river. When the runoff dwindled in the summer, they couldn’t irrigate. (This is part of the reasoning behind our argument in the new book that claims that there once were ~125,000 acres irrigated in the Middle Valley are not credible.) Construction of El Vado allowed communities to do the classic “dams move water in time” thing – store some of the big spring peak and stretch it out through summer.

El Vado Dam and Reservoir. Photo credit: USBR

El Vado is busted, though, unusable while it undergoes repairs. As Dani Prokop reported last month, the repairs are dragging:

That means no storage (other than a little bit in Abiquiu Reservoir for Native American communities) for irrigators, which means that once the snow is melted, the river will dwindle.


Even if El Vado wasn’t broken, though, we’d sorta be in the same bind thanks to Article VI of the Rio Grande compact, which says….

New Mexico’s compact debt to Texas – the net we’ve underdelivered in recent years – is 93,000 acre feet. So even if El Vado wasn’t broken, any water we were able to store up to 93,000 acre feet would have to stay there. (This is why the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District has reduced its diversions this year to 80 percent of what the district otherwise be sending down its canals – to get more of that water to Elephant Butte Reservoir, to try to reduce compact debt, so they can usefully store water once El Vado is fixed. This is a whole other blog post, because the discourse around this has been fascinating as I do the “embedded writer” thing at MRGCD for my book research.)


I was down at the Rio Grande yesterday morning to record an interview about western water stuff with a crew from Italian public television. (The were neat! It was fun!) A bosque walker asked what we were doing and Luca, the TV guy, explained that they were interviewing the professor (pointing to me). The woman asked if I was a hydrologist. No, I replied, I do water policy.

That’s the thing. To understand the flow in the river we were standing next to, you need to understand the physical science – climate, hydrology, and such. But then, crucially, you needs to think about how the actual wet water is filter through the system’s human-built physical plumbing, which then requires understanding who it all is filtered through the rules.


At this point in a post like this, I often drop in a thanks to my supporters, who make this work possible, including the Utton Center and Inkstain’s contributors. But I’d also point you to the linked information sources above – Downtown Albuquerque News is subscription-supported and one of my favorite local news reads, and Source NM (Dani Prokop’s employer – she’s doing great water stuff, invaluable to the community). Information is a public good, and as my economist friends like to point out, because of the free rider problem, public goods are under-provided.

Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery seems to be returning — John Fleck (InkStain) #groundwater

Albuquerque’s aquifer recovery continues

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

After a couple of years of setback, the aquifer underneath the University of New Mexico neighorhood is rising again.

The spring measurement shows that it’s risen three feet since last year around this time.

The annual variability (the graph’s ups and downs) are the result of regional groundwater pumping for our municipal supply – more pumping in summer, less in winter. It’s fun to see how the regional aquifer responds, like a big bathtub filled with gravel and sand.

The long term upward trend, beginning in 2006-08-ish, is the result of a) significant conservation reducing overall municipal demand, and b) a shift to imported surface water via the San Juan-Chama Project.

The dip in 2020-21 is because we had a badass drought that required us to shift a significant amount of our supply off of that imported surface water and increase our groundwater pumping. The aquifer here dropped five feet from 2021 to 2022, for example.

This is a great example of polycentric governance. Absent a top-down (read state government) regulatory framework, our local water utility, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, has taken it upon itself to serve as a sort of de facto manager of this aquifer – not because it’s our legal responsibility (though there are some legal entanglements with the state water rights regime) but because we, as a community, concluded a number of years ago that it was in our best interest to take care of the aquifer. (Disclosure: I serve on the ABCWUA Technical Customer Advisory Committee.)

This is just one measurement point, because one of my intellectual tricks is to pick a gage (usually a river gage, but also this one for groundwater) and pay attention to it. This is tricky, because what if it’s not representative? But there’s been a lot of work by the USGS and others looking at our groundwater network as a whole, and the trend holds in general in the big, deep aquifer beneath Albuquerque. (One of my other favorite wells, City #2, which goes back to the 1950s, is up 6 inches year-over-year. Another favorite is City #3, which is located at the heart of one of the thick geographies I’m writing about for the new book, and is really close to one of the ABCWUA well fields, which tells another fabulous story as a result, but I’ve got a chapter to finish today so I’ll leave that for another day.)

Bosque Del Apache overbanking as the #RioGrande rises — John Fleck (InkStain) (April 25, 2023)

Rio Grande overbanking, Albuquerque, April 22, 2023. By John Fleck

Click the link to read the article on the Inkstain website (John Fleck)

In the early 1990s, a group of New Mexico scientists set up experimental plots at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque for in an effort to determine what might happen when water was reintroduced to the flood-starved woods flanking the river. Their description of what happened is a delight:

From time immemorial, this must have been a near-annual event, as the crickets and spiders scurried ahead of rising water each spring as the Rio Grande spread across the valley floor – bad for people trying to live here, great for the flora and fauna. From the same group of authors:

This changed in the early 1930s, dramatically, in an ecological instant as the newly formed Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District dug drainage ditches on either side of the Rio Grande and across the valley floor, throwing up the excavated dirt in spoil bank levees flanking the river’s then-main channel.

We understand what happened next thanks to a University of New Mexico biology student named Marjorie Van Cleave, who for her 1935 masters thesis documented the change. In that historic moment, plants and animals dependent on the wetlands spread across the valley floor disappeared.

Cattails – gone. Sedges, with deeper roots, hung on for a bit longer before fading into the ecological mists. Cocklebur, Russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, sunflowers, and pigweed colonized the old marshlands of the valley floor. We are forever in Van Cleave’s debt.

What we’re seeing this spring on the fringes of the Rio Grande bears so little resemblance to the valley-wide ecosystem that it seems cheap to even compare, but the careful work of Cliff Crawford, Manual Molles, and their colleagues three decades ago trying to address this question – What would happen if we reintroduced just a bit of flooding to the forests on the river’s edges? – nevertheless draws a critical connection between the Rio Grande and the community that surrounds it.

For our forthcoming book Ribbons of Green, Bob Berrens and I are interested in that critical moment in the 1930s when, with levees and drains, the valley floor around Albuquerque was disconnected from the river. The ecology was changed, suddenly, as was the connection between human communities and their river.

Much of our modern understanding of the bosque ecosystem is built on the work of Crawford and Molles, who started taking students down to the river in the 1980s. For much of the time between Van Cleave’s exhaustive work and the return of Crawford, Molles, and their students in the 1980s, little scientific attention seems to have been paid to the riverside ecosystem.

I can’t find the newspaper story I wrote based on a visit to the bosque with Cliff Crawford and his then-grad student and now my good friend Mary Harner. But I did find the obituary I wrote when Cliff died in 2010.

It’s a model in my mind for public-facing science, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as Bob and I wrestle with how to explain, in our book, Albuquerque’s modern relationship with the Rio Grande.

Mary has done an amazing job with her Witnessing Watersheds project of thinking about and documenting Albuquerque’s historic relationship with the river, and the time I have spent with her – mostly walking in the bosque, some to think of it – has been a huge influence on how I think about and approach this question.

Given flood control flow constraints, it’s hard to to get enough water through town to rise up out of the main channel and get back into the woods these days, to get it to “come alive with hopping crickets and running spiders,” but with 2023’s big snowpack, but there enough low spots providing delightful exceptions, and we’re already starting to see it rising up into those. Lissa and I were on a bosque trail near downtown Saturday when we were stopped by the water you see in the picture at the top of the blog.

There’s a sciency thing going on here – nutrient cycling, clearing out all the dry crud built up on the forest floor that in a more “natural” system would be wetted most years. (It was, in fact, Mary Harner who turned me on to the Molles et al paper I quoted above, with the hopping crickets and running spiders, when I asked for help running down the nutrient cycling piece. It turns out to be super nerdy and I probably won’t put it in the book.)

But it’s the cultural piece that I’m more interested in – the way we as a community have shifted from a desire in the 1930s to fence ourselves off from the river completely, to embracing overbanking with delight.

As often happens with these little mini-essays – sketches, really, for the book – this didn’t end up where I expected. I started with the intention of writing about nutrient cycling – printouts of research papers scattered across my desk, underlined bits, an excessive number of browser tabs.

But I realize that this is, in fact, a story about the relationship between a community and its river.

A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division

San Juan Mountains #snowpack yields healthier stream flows on #Rio #Grande and #ConejosRiver — @AlamosaCitizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

COLORADO is estimating 750,000 acre-feet on the Rio Grande and 405,000 acre-feet on the Conejos River, both dramatically up from a year ago thanks to healthy snowpack in the San Juan Mountains, State Engineer Kevin Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission on Friday.

“Forecasted river flows are much better this year, especially for the rivers starting in the San Juan Mountains,” Rein said. “Streamflows from the San Juan Mountains are estimated to be 130 to 250 percent of the last 30-year average.”

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are at near average snowpack conditions, but still better than recent years, Rein said. 

Streamflows on the Trinchera, Culebra, and Crestone creeks are forecasted at 90 to 120 percent of the last 30-year average, he said.

In 2022, the Rio Grande had 442,000 acre-feet and the Conejos 266,000 acre-feet for a third straight year of below average stream flows.

Rein’s presentation to the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which manages water on the Rio Grande for the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, included a report on the San Luis Valley’s subdistrict system and Colorado’s groundwater pumping rules that Valley irrigators have to follow.

Subdistrict 1, which is the biggest land subdivision in the San Luis Valley with 3,000 water wells and where farmers hold contracts with entities like Coors, Walmart and Safeway, has submitted a fourth plan of water management to Rein and the Colorado Division of Water Resources in its effort to meet the sustainability requirements for Upper Rio Grande’s unconfined aquifer.

“It is struggling with meeting its sustainability requirements in the unconfined aquifer,” Rein told the Rio Grande Compact Commission. 

The proposed fourth plan of water management by Subdistrict 1 would require irrigators to cover groundwater withdrawals with natural surface water or through the purchase of surface water credits. The plan calls for a 1-to-1 augmentation, meaning for every acre-foot of water used, an acre-foot has to be returned to the unconfined aquifer through recharging ponds.

In the San Luis Valley, well owners must replace their injurious river depletions by participating in a subdistrict or by getting a court-approved augmentation plan. The subdistricts, governed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, must get state approval for annual replacement plans that show how farmers and ranchers are covering their water depletions.

There are three upcoming state water court cases involving irrigators in Subdistrict 1 who filed their own augmentation plans in an effort to stay out of the subdistrict. 

The largest of the three cases involves the Sustainable Water Augmentation Group (SWAG), which consists of 17,000 irrigated acres in Subdistrict 1. That case is set for a five-week trial in July and will be closely watched to see how a proposed augmentation plan this large is reviewed by state water court.


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Closed Basin issues rise at #RioGrande Water Conservation District board meeting — @AlamosaCitizen #SanLuisValley

Sunrise March 10, 2023 Alamosa Colorado with the Rio Grande in the foreground. Photo credit: Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen website (Chris Lopez):

THE federal government’s Closed Basin Project reared its head at Thursday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board.

In question was whether Closed Basin water could be included in annual replacement plans as a potential resource for subdistricts to help offset winter depletions to the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins.

The majority of the board answered in the affirmative, with some dissent, and approved resolutions to that effect and then separately approved the respective annual replacement plans of the six subdistricts. Those now get filed with the state Division of Water Resources for review and sign-off and are key plans to show the state how Valley irrigators are replacing the water they pump out in efforts to bring sustainability to the Upper Rio Grande aquifers.

The meeting drew a crowd of water users along the Rio Grande and Conejos River basins, who had heard the subdistrict annual replacement plans were in jeopardy of not being approved because the plans included potential use of Closed Basin water. Without a board-approved annual replacement plan in place, irrigators wouldn’t be able to begin groundwater pumping, hence the turnout and pleas to the board to vote for the plans.

No annual replacement plan, no groundwater pumping, no Valley ag economy was the message the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board members heard.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-managed Closed Basin Project, positioned in the northern end of the Valley, pools surface water and groundwater and pumps the water into a canal to meet Rio Grande Compact and Treaty of Mexico requirements. 

In rulings from the Colorado Supreme Court, the water also can be prioritized for private use if there’s water left after meeting annual downstream obligations to New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, and delivering water to the Valley’s wetlands and wildlife refuges. 

But rarely is that the case.

With the persistent drought conditions, the Closed Basin Project has reduced its pumping to about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year, said Amber Pacheco, acting general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Of that, about 4,000 acre-feet is used to protect the wetlands areas and the rest of the water, or around 8,000 acre-feet, heads downstream.

The Closed Basin has an absolute water right of 42,000 acre-feet annually if conditions allow for it, and pumping is constantly monitored because under federal statute the Closed Basin Project cannot withdraw water to a level two feet below the area being pumped.

“They can’t pump it dry,” Pacheco said. “The Closed Basin Project can’t operate that way.”

Pacheco said the Rio Grande Water Conservation District cannot use Closed Basin water for anything other than wintertime depletions. “We pay all our irrigation-season depletions by other means. We don’t use the Closed Basin for that.”

And despite there being plenty of water users who would like to see the Closed Basin Project shut down and the water kept in the San Luis Valley, including some members of Rio Grande Water Conservation District board, a vote to shut it down isn’t within the boards power.

“This board can’t shut down the Closed Basin. It’s a federal project. They can ask and make comments, but they can’t vote to shut it down.”

But the Rio Grande Water Conservation District can approve an annual replacement plan for a subdistrict that includes the option of using Closed Basin water to offset winter depletions. The meeting at least made that clear.


Find more coverage of the RWR plan and other Valley water issues HERE

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

Deadpool Diaries: In March 2023, the #RioGrande/#ColoradoRiver #snowpack went bonkers — John Fleck (InkStain) #COriver #aridification

An urban river. Arenal Canal in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Photo credit: John Fleck/InkStain

Click the link to read the article on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

The ditches were flowing across Albuquerque’s valley floor yesterday [April 2, 2023] as I criss-crossed them on a long, aimless bike ride, the first day it really felt like spring. The cycling challenge at this winter<->spring pivot point is clothing – layers for a morning start hovering just above freezing, with a pannier stuffed with the layers by the time I was down to shirtsleeves for my taco brunch.

Embudo Creek

My favorite gage at this time of year is Embudo Creek, just above its confluence with the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. You can see the diurnal cycle of day-night melting, and the rising as the temperature warms. With the big snowpack, flows right now are well above the median. (Prof. Fleck note: The skewed nature of the data, with flows a lot higher on the high side than the lows on the low side, makes the mean – typically what we mean by “average” – less meaningful for a data like this. Hence median.)

The West Gulf River Forecast Center is forecasting Embudo Creek runoff at more than double the median this year.

The Embudo is just one little creek, but people live on it and built their lives around it. Of such creeks is the entire West built. Good to pay attention to one.


The whole deadpool/wrecked speedboats emerging from the Lake Mead mud thing seems a bit of a quaint echo from a stranded past, as the Colorado River discourse shifts from how to protect the infrastructure from a dark cascade toward deadpool to “Which reservoirs should we refill, and by how much?”

The official CBRFC April 1 forecast hasn’t dropped yet, but the preliminary modeled numbers are up 3.6 million acre feet from March 1.

3.6 million acre feet.

Never forget. Photo credit: John Fleck

That seems like a lot, but it is worth remembering that we’ve been overusing the river by about 1.5 million acre feet per year since the turn of the century.

This likely means a release from Glen Canyon Dam to the Lower Basin of 9 million acre feet (or more?) in 2023, which might be enough to re-submerge some of the wrecked speedboats. That would be nice, but I hope we don’t forget the visceral message they’ve been sending us.

Interior’s draft modeling results should emerge next week (perhaps April 10-11-12?), but the specific near term crisis they were meant to help us through – the possibility of a Glen Canyon Dam release of less than 7 million acre feet this year – is gone.


Instead, the Basin community is wrestling with a “what shall we do with the extra water” question: refilling Flaming Gorge and the other Upper Basin reservoirs drawn down by DROA, erasing “operational neutrality” by solving the confusing mess of the relationship between how much water was held back in Powell to keep the dam from breaking, and how that affects Lower Basin shortage tier accounting. (Don’t ask me hard questions, it’s super confusing.)

In a really important way, the discussion has shifted from short term crisis management to long term, umm, I guess “crisis management” remains the right description? Raise your hand if you disagree.


The Rio Grande, which is getting my most focused thinking right now on account of the new book (see bike ride picture above), is in good shape. Usually at this time of year I shift from watching the snowpack to worrying about dry wind events, but this year there’s so gosh-darned much snow up there that I’m, like, “Meh, whatever, bring it on, spring!”

Otowi runoff via WGRFC – a very good year on the Rio Grande

A lot depends on spring winds now, and the rate of warming and meltoff. But that will just be the difference between a big year and a very big year.

My great hope is for overbank flows in the Middle Rio Grande, like we had in 2019. Those were super fun.

#RioGrande #Water #Conservation District sets value of irrigated ag land: Board debates requirements to access $30 million earmark in state #Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund — @AlamosaCitizen

Irrigation in the San Luis Valley in August 2022. Photo/Allen Best

Click the link to read the article on the Alamosa Citizen websitse (Chris Lopez):

IRRIGATED agricultural land in the San Luis Valley is worth $250,000 for 160 acres, or $2,000 per acre-foot of groundwater withdrawn.

At least those are the valuations on irrigated acres that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board agreed to during a special meeting Tuesday when it debated requirements for farmers and ranchers to apply for a $30 million pool of state money.

The water conservation district board will meet again on Friday, March 3, to formally adopt the requirements.

Developing the criteria to access the $30 million tied to state law SB22-028 and its Groundwater Compact Compliance Fund was a painstaking process for the water conservation district board, which has met for hours and hours over a series of meetings to hash out the requirements.

Cleave Simpson, the architect of SB22-028 and general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, always said drafting the requirements would prove to be more difficult than getting the legislation adopted, and he was right.

“This whole plan is not easy to understand,” said board member Peggy Godfrey in her pleas for simplicity in drafting the requirements.

The state law is intended to help irrigators in the Upper Rio Grande Basin and Republican River Basin meet their water obligations by retiring irrigated acreage. Each basin has an earmark of $30 million. In the case of San Luis Valley farmers and ranchers, the money has to be spent to permanently retire groundwater pumping wells to help the Upper Rio Grande meet the state’s groundwater pumping regulations and stabilize the two aquifers in the San Luis Valley.

David Robbins and J.C. Ulrich (Greg Hobbs) at the 2013 Colorado Water Congress Annual Convention

David Robbins, the water conservation district’s long-standing attorney, emphasized that the requirements have to result in a “verifiable reduction in groundwater wells.” The state program is essentially a $30 million “buy and dry” for irrigated acres in the Valley, Robbins has said.

Once adopted, the Colorado Division of Water Resources will review the requirements before they go into effect. The state takes at least a month to review and approve the requirements adopted by the water conservation board, according to Robbins. 

That means it would be sometime in April and into the spring that the Rio Grande Water Conservation District would begin to accept applications and start to spend down the $30 million earmark. Amber Pacheco, acting general manager, said the water conservation district is already getting phone calls from groundwater well irrigators looking to apply for the money. 

Under the state law, any of the $60 million not spent by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and Republican River Conservation District by Aug. 15, 2024, goes into the state’s kitty for spending. The money is part of Colorado’s federal appropriation of COVID-19 relief funding.

In opting to establish a “base payment” that values a quarter section of irrigated land (160 acres) at $250,000, the board knew that it may overpay on some properties and underpay on others.

“We’re going to hear that,” said board member Steve Keller. “This is where simplicity works against accuracy.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s debate when some revisions were made to the draft, Robbins advised board members to be careful not to advocate for criteria that could benefit their own farm operations. That prompted board member Mike Kruse to recuse himself from the deliberations. Kruse has said he plans to submit an application for some of the $30 million.

The water conservation district board had to account for different sizes of farming operations that may apply for the money. The section on land compensation reads, in part: “Applications that seek to include parcels of property that are either larger or smaller than a standard quarter section (160 acres) will receive a prorated base payment that will rely on the decreed and/or permitted irrigated acres for the serving well(s), using $250,000 for 160 acres as the base. [For example: a half quarter at 80 acres would have a base payment of $125,000 or a parcel of 240 acres would have a base payment of $375,000].”

“I don’t want this $30 million to go away. I want to spend it all,” said Greg Higel, president of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board.

Once the state approves the requirements, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District will publicize them on its website. A draft of the requirements is posted here, but note that this draft was slightly modified in language in a few sections during Tuesday’s special meeting of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District and is not the final draft.

Still Pools: Teeming with life at the edge: “But extinction is not a promise. It’s a process” — Source #NewMexico #RioGrande

White-throated swifts carry insects to feed their young, nestled against the bottom of bridges along the Rio Grande. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Click the link to read the article on the Source New Mexico website (Danielle Prokop):

SUNLAND PARK — Below the crags of Mount Cristo Rey, a string of little pools in the riverbed reflect its steep hills and white cross perched atop the peak. Black-necked stilts pick their way across on shocking pink legs, pushing through vibrant grass. A lone peacock, gone feral, zips through the streambed, interrupting the mountain’s reflection.

Diana, quietly stalking the stilts, nearly misses my wild pantomiming, trying to point out the bright blue bird just a few yards away. We both catch a glimpse of indigo wings as he flaps into the brush, and melts away unseen.

We came to this place to see the year-round pools. The high groundwater squeezes through the earth in a space between state and international borders — nearly a no-man’s land. A truck occasionally rumbles across the bridge, or a cyclist pauses to look over the river. Most city sounds sink away, replaced by the flutter of young cottonwoods, the rustle of grasses, the squawk if we get too close to a stilt, a frog gently peeping.

People from all walks of life, all along the river spoke a poetry of place. Each shared a memory of the Rio Grande — taking a fishing trip with grandparents or being struck for the first time by the lush green of a wetland in the desert.

We return again and again. At dawn and dusk, the place is filled with the raucous twittering of white-throated swifts, corkscrewing to alight on precarious lumpy nests, cradling their young. We pick in the mud under the bridge, looking up to see bright-eyed chicks peeping out their heads — next to the empty imprints of broken nests.

Groundwater pools into the Rio Grande riverbed, offering refuge to black-necked stilts, waterfowl, even a rogue peacock. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

This is just one of thousands of small places on the river, already reshaped by a different climate, an echo of a river system that no longer runs naturally. It is a place where creatures belong, but none express rights to its water.

Diana and I set out to tell stories about the memory of a river and document the Rio Grande as it is now. One of those aims was to foster a sense of place, even if people had never seen these portions of the river before.

“I feel oftentimes, we don’t get outside enough,” Diana said in a talk with Estela Padilla at the outset of this project. “If people don’t get a chance to love a place, they don’t understand it’s fragile — it’s not here forever.”

So much of the river’s story is about human hands dipping into it — to take from it, to manipulate it, and also to restore it, to worship in it.

We’ve told some of the story of how governments reshaped the river through dams and other controls over decades. How climate change is amplifying the consequences of that interference. How such major alterations to the Rio Grande set us on a path to where the riverbed goes dry now for miles at a time. How the overallocation of water for agriculture is paired with a refusal to devote water to the river just so it can sustain itself and its ecosystems. How we’re all a part of those ecosystems.

Black-necked stilts alight in the pools in Sunland Park, where the high groundwater creates year-round pools that offer sustenance and a home to creatures in the desert landscape. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

We told you about the desperate, short-sighted rescue effort to save one kind of fish while throwing hundreds of others back into the mud. The historic and ongoing exclusion of the pueblos from the decision-making table

We’ve talked to some of the farmers and ranchers who are trying to figure out how to conserve, who understand how the river’s health is essential to survival. And we’ve sat with some of the advocates hand-watering trees and fighting for patches of restoration along the river — or for its overall endurance in the era of global warming. 

And Source NM has published other stories about big legal fights over less and less water, and still more articles about extractive industries and their outsized contribution to ever hotter, drier conditions.

Even with all of this time, all of these miles on the river, I don’t have any simple answers.

But extinction is not a promise. It’s a process.

Trucks occasionally rumble over the Sunland Park pools, cut by a train horn in the distance. Otherwise, sounds of the city slip away, and the twittering of swallows dominates the pools. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM

People alter processes and their trajectories all the time. Sometimes just a few people’s efforts build the backbone of transformation. But across place, across life experience, many value the river. They fight to sustain it, as it sustains life here. 

Any real shift takes time, and there’s not much left. The Rio Grande remains suspended on the bleeding edge of climate change. I fear one day all of these little pools will just be a memory of ours. That our prayer for this river, too, will be a lamentation. 

But the fear subsides a little, slipping into the rustle of long grasses. This moment remains, suspended aloft, like young swifts.