@USBR expects above average #runoff on the #RioGrande through #NewMexico this Spring

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

Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation:

Irrigators, municipalities, recreation community and the overall ecosystem of the Rio Grande will experience the benefits of an above average spring runoff this year. That’s according to the Annual Operating Plan based on above average snowpack in the mountains that feed the Rio Grande and its tributaries released today by the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s April streamflow forecast predicts that Rio Chama flow into El Vado Reservoir will be 142% of average, up from just 18% of average last year. This is a forecast inflow of approximately 320,000 acre-feet, up from 41,000 acre-feet at the same time last year. Rio Grande streamflow at Otowi Bridge is similarly predicted to be at 142% of average.

“This is a complete turnaround from last year when we were preparing for drying in the Middle Rio Grande in April,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office Manager Jennifer Faler. “We are looking forward to a good spring runoff that will improve storage supplies and help the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow spawn. Reclamation will continue to work closely with our water management partners at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, State of New Mexico, Bureau of Indian Affairs and irrigation districts to manage the Rio Grande safely and efficiently through the summer.”

The Rio Grande is currently operating under the Rio Grande Compact’s Article VII restrictions. Under Article VII when the combined usable Rio Grande Project storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo is below 400,000 acre-feet, storage in upstream reservoirs, like El Vado, is only allowed under limited circumstances. Reclamation expects Article VII restrictions to end in mid-May for several months, allowing for storage in El Vado during that time. Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs ended the last irrigation season holding less than 3% of their combined storage capacity. They are already rebounding and are currently holding more than 288,000 acre-feet or about 13% of capacity.

The Elephant Butte Irrigation District, El Paso County Water Improvement District Number One and Mexico plan to begin irrigation the first week in June. Reclamation will begin releasing water from Elephant Butte to Caballo Reservoir on May 3 in preparation for the irrigation season. Releases from Caballo will begin on May 31. The dry riverbed between Elephant Butte and Caballo and below Caballo will take on water quickly. As such, it will be both unpredictable and very dangerous. The public is asked to stay out of the river channel for their safety.

Saguache: Folks in the San Luis Valley express opposition to out of basin export plan

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

From The Center Post Dispatch (Teresa L. Benns):

Renewable Water Resources (RWR) managing partner Sean Tonner made his water export presentation to an overflow crowd at the Saguache Road and Bridge Building [April 9, 2019] evening, but nearly all those attending made it clear they were not receptive to the plan.

Tonner opened the discussion by telling county residents the plan is “still in the formation stages and has years to go.” He said he has already held 150 meetings to explain the project.

A former chief of staff for Gov. Bill Owen, who supported the plan, Tonner also worked with former State Senator Greg Brophy and other government officials on the project. Currently Tonner owns the 11,500-acre Gary Boyce ranch, purchased from Boyce’s wife following his death. He also leases grazing land in the same area.

Tonner claims less than two percent of the annual confined aquifer recharge — 500,000 acre-feet — is needed by the Front Range. Farmers could sell all or a portion of their water rights to RWR for twice the going amount. A total of $60 million has been set aside to procure water rights.

Already enough Saguache County farmers and ranchers have agreed to sell their water rights to satisfy the proposed 22,000 acre-feet project, Tonner reported. The plan is said to be able to retire more than 30,000 acre-feet, reducing the overall usage from the basin. This would presumably lessen the pressure on existing rivers and streams now providing water to the Front Range.

A pipeline along Highway 285, restricted to a 22,000-acre-foot capacity, would carry the water up over Poncha Pass into Chaffee County and from there it would eventually make its way into the Platte River. There would be no adverse impact on wildlife, Tonner claims.

The project would create a $50 million community fund for the county that could be used for a variety of purposes including education, law enforcement, tourism, economic development, conservation and other worthy cause. The county would manage the fund. Just the interest would generate $3-4 million annually which is twice the amount of the county’s sales tax grants, he pointed out.

Commissioners question Tonner

Citizens were asked to listen only during the meeting, although there was one uninvited comment by longtime water consultant Chris Canaly. Commissioners then offered their responses to Tonner’s plan, beginning with Jason Anderson.

Anderson asked Tonner if he had researched the plan to see if any communities in either Colorado or nationwide had ever benefited from water exportation. Tonner could not answer the question, although he told Anderson he is familiar with the history of similar projects.

J. Anderson also challenged Tonner’s statement that there is one to two billion acre-feet of water in the aquifer beneath the Valley, some of it below sea level. “We have a guess about what’s down there, but no one really knows,” Anderson told Tonner, echoing the opinions of several water exports who have advised the county. “And they estimate that all this water is connected, so where are the benefits, say, for Alamosa and Costilla counties?”

RWR replied that the benefit would lie in a lessening of the burden of water replacement. Commissioner Ken Anderson challenged Tonner on his definition of Front Range, reminding him that the San Juans are the higher front range. K. Anderson said he also had questions about the model RWR is using.

Commissioner Jason Anderson then asked Tonner what the county would do about the promised money for the community fund if there is another recession. RWR replied there would likely be another economic downturn, but said he thought it “is pretty bad when we have the ability to solve problems with renewable resources we are not going to use” and fail to do so.

This brought a united protest from the crowd, who denied the county’s water resources are “renewable.” Anderson reminded attendees that Tonner had a right as a Saguache County resident to voice his opinion whether they agreed with his ideas or not.

@USBR to release 2019 Annual Operating Plan for Rio Grande

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

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

The Bureau of Reclamation invites the public to a presentation explaining plans for Rio Grande water operations in 2019. Snowpack is close to average in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico and a good spring runoff on the Rio Grande is expected.

The presentation will cover the process for determining the plan for water operations; a review of 2018 water predictions, as compared to actual storage and releases; and explanation of the 2019 water forecast and potential for storage and releases.

What: Release of Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande

When and Where:

  • Middle Rio Grande AOP: Thursday, April 18, 2019, at 1:30 p.m.
    Bureau of Reclamation, 555 Broadway NE, Suite 100, Albuquerque, NM 87102. Webex available for the Albuquerque meeting, e-mail Mary Carlson at mcarlson@usbr.gov to participate.
  • Rio Grande AOP: Thursday, April 25, 2019, at 1:30 p.m.
    El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, 13247 Alameda Ave, Clint, TX 79836.
  • Why: To learn more about the process used for determining this year’s operating plan, water forecast, water storage and potential for water storage and release.

    How: Please contact Ms. Carlson at 505-462-3576 with any questions. If you are interested in the presentation and unable to attend either meeting, following the meeting it will be posted at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/albuq/water/aop/index.html.

    Feel free to e-mail Ms. Carlson at mcarlson@usbr.gov for more information.

    The history and preservation of the #Acequia del Madre del Río Pueblo, Taos, #NewMexico — The Paseo Project

    Click here to read the report:

    The Paseo Project is excited to present Acequia Aquí: The history and preservation of the Acequia Madre del Río Pueblo. The essay and series of maps illuminate the deteriorating acequia network at the heart of the town of Taos. Through community collaborations, The Paseo Project seeks to educate, illuminate and support this historic and culturally important public infrastructure. Through this exploration, the Paseo Project seeks to transform our community by celebrating the downtown acequia network through creative and artistic events and installations. With the help of this booklet, we hope that you will better understand the history and value the acequia system has provided to our community and imagine with us new ways that we can celebrate the gift of their presence. — The Paseo Project Team

    View north from Taos Plaza toward Taos Mountain. By NASA World Wind. – NASA World Wind., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50266898

    #RioGrande: After last year’s ‘brutal’ water conditions, forecasters and farmers keep an eye on #snowpack

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

    Recent storms packed the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico with healthy snow levels, and meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions will persist through the spring. This is welcome news after last year’s dry conditions. But in the long term, forecasters and farmers still remain cautious. That’s because long-term drought has dried out the state’s soils. And reservoirs remain low, particularly on the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Chama River.

    According to the most recent national drought monitor, the only extreme drought conditions in the entire nation are in San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico. Drought conditions are also building in west Texas and in New Mexico’s Lea and Eddy counties. And though El Niño conditions favor bringing precipitation to the Southwest, temperatures are expected to be above average over the next month, too.

    US Drought Monitor March 19, 2019.

    During a call earlier this week about the outlook for the Rio Grande this year, Greg Waller, service coordination hydrologist with NOAA’s West Gulf River Forecast Center, emphasized the good snowpack news, especially after last year’s “brutal” conditions. But he also noted it’s critical to pay attention to what happens next.

    Because the ground is so dry, initial snowmelt will first do the job of saturating top layers of the soil…

    Refilling empty reservoirs

    In 2018, there wasn’t any runoff to speak of on the Rio Grande, and both the river and reservoirs suffered.

    “By this time last year, we were preparing to manage drying on the river,” said Mary Carlson with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In 2018, the Rio Grande began drying in early April, when it should have been flush with snowmelt.

    Since last May, New Mexico has been under Article VII restrictions: According to the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any of the upstream reservoirs built after 1929 when combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs is below 400,000 acre feet. This includes Heron, El Vado and Heron reservoirs.

    As of Thursday, Elephant Butte is holding 205,000 acre feet of water, and Caballo, 28,000 acre feet.

    March reservoir storage levels in New Mexico – Office of the State Engineer via the New Mexico Political Report

    Carlson said Reclamation estimates Article VII restrictions will lift in mid-May, for about a month, until combined storage in the two reservoirs drops again below 400,000 acre feet.

    While most of New Mexico’s streams and rivers are at or above their norm for the season—even the Santa Fe River is flowing right now—most of the state’s largest reservoirs still tell the story of 2018’s historically dry and warm conditions.

    Elephant Butte Reservoir is at just 10.4 percent capacity as of Thursday, and on the Chama River, El Vado Reservoir currently holds just 25,000 acre feet of water, Heron Reservoir, 59,000 acre feet and Abiquiu Reservoir, 69,000 acre feet. For perspective, that means Heron is 15 percent full, El Vado, 14 percent and Abiquiu, just 12 percent.

    Improvement over last year

    In the Middle Rio Grande Valley, irrigation canals and ditches are already flowing, mostly to flush debris that built up over the winter and to check for leaks.

    “There has been some irrigation going on, but generally it has remained cool and damp, and we are not getting many requests for water yet,” said Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District hydrologist David Gensler. “Certainly not like last year, when it was so dry and people were desperate for water.”

    Unless something “really unexpected” happens, he said, the district anticipates a “pretty comfortable year” for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande

    Even if New Mexico comes out of Article VII restrictions, he said the district probably won’t store much water in 2019, and they aren’t even considering the possibility of filling El Vado. That’s not just due to conditions and restrictions, he said: repairs are planned for El Vado, and managers will also need water to help support endangered species in the river, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow

    There is a downside to anticipating this year’s runoff, he said: they’ll be watching the levees closely. The timing of snowmelt will matter, but there could be situations similar to in 2017, when there was levee seepage and bank failures. Gensler also anticipates that the Chama River below Abiquiu Reservoir will run at the channel’s capacity, causing erosion and damage to acequia intakes there…

    Southern New Mexico farmers in wait-and-see mode

    Further downstream, farmers in southern New Mexico are also watching the levels at Elephant Butte, which hit a low last September of three percent capacity.

    Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID) farmers will start receiving water from Caballo Reservoir at the end of May. Until then, they will have to pump groundwater if they need to irrigate.

    Currently, the district anticipates delivering to farmers six to ten inches of water per acre. But EBID hasn’t decided on final allocations yet, because their storage levels are so low, explained Phillip King, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico State University and water adviser to EBID.

    A normal allotment for EBID farmers is 36 inches per acre per year. Last year, EBID farmers received ten inches. And even in 2017, during which snowpack was robust, drought and storage conditions meant they received 24 inches.

    “While the snowpack looks promising, we don’t allocate it until it reaches the reservoir,” he said. “It is a long way from the mountain slopes of Colorado to Elephant Butte Dam.”


    ‘Pray for rain’

    Meanwhile, over on the Pecos River, the Carlsbad Irrigation District had planned to start the irrigation season by now, but they’re holding off, probably for just a few more days…

    Unlike on the Rio Grande, farmers on the Pecos have received full allotments of water in recent years—that’s about 3.7 acre feet per year. Right now, the initial allotment for this spring is set at 2.5 acre feet. “We expect that will go up,” Ballard said. “We have not yet gotten any of the snowmelt or runoff from the Sangre de Cristos into Santa Rosa Lake, so we’re just waiting to see what that will be before we increase the allotment.”

    Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

    Monte Vista Crane Festival 2019

    Greater Sandhill Cranes in flight over the San Luis Valley. The annual Monte Vista Crane Festival takes place during March each year. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

    From Colorado Outdoors Magazine (Crystal Egli):

    I’ve known for awhile that a crane’s diet consists of crop waste grain such as corn, wheat, barley, oats, as well as snails, crayfish, insects, small vertebrates and the eggs of other birds, but what I observed over the next hour was completely unexpected. The cranes used their elongated beaks to root around for potatoes, with great enthusiasm. At first I thought they were just slicing them into smaller and smaller pieces in order to eat them – which some of them were, but then I saw one throw back an entire potato and swallow it whole. Then another, and another. I pressed record.

    The sandhill cranes were swallowing potatoes whole like a pelican eating a fish! After years of capturing footage of the cranes flying in and out of fields, it was quite interesting and unexpected to witness a behavior I had never before observed in this species.

    Lessons Learned
    I am so glad I got the courage to ask the landowner for permission to access their land. My trip was shaping up to be pretty fowl but by the end I was happy as a lark. I think next year I’ll time my visit for the heart of the festival when there are guided tours lead by birding professionals, volunteers to ask for advice and help, fellow birders to compare notes with and a craft fair to chill at instead of brooding in my hotel lobby. Honestly, the festival is a hoot. If you’ve never been to one before I highly recommend it– maybe I’ll see you there next year! We’re always looking to add more crane enthusiasts to our flock.

    Job opportunity: Professional Engineer 3 level for the Lead Assistant Division Engineer, Division 3 (#RioGrande Basin). Closes on March 22, 2019

    Click here to apply:

    Description of Job
    Although the Division of Water Resources Office is located in Alamosa, the position’s primary duties are performed within 30 miles of the border of Colorado.

    This position assists the Division of Water Resources (DWR) State Engineer in carrying out the statutory duties required of the DWR and any written instruction of the State Engineer within the geographic area of State Division Three; serve as Division Engineer as designated; assure integrity of the Prior Appropriations Doctrine while maximizing beneficial use of water; coordinate the regulation of water within the Division; consult with the Water Court; resolve disputes that exceed the abilities of Water Commissioners; supervise field and office personnel; assist the public through the Water Court process and well permit application process and in the understanding of water law, hydrology and water supply, and other water-related issues; prepare expert witness reports; consult with the Water Court regarding Water Court applications; respond to water user complaints and write reports summarizing the agency’s position; and negotiate or provide expert engineering support / testimony to litigate any conditions necessary to protect existing water rights. Other duties as assigned.