As warming continues, ‘hot #drought’ becomes the norm, not an exception — #NewMexico Political Report #aridification

West Drought Monitor May 15, 2018.

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

“Climate change for the Southwest is all about water,” said Jonathan Overpeck, who has spent decades studying climate change and its impacts in the southwestern United States. Warming affects the amount of water flowing in streams, and the amount of water available to nourish forests, agricultural fields and orchards. There’s also the physics of the matter: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, demanding more from land surfaces. Plants need more water, too. “Any way you look at it,” Overpeck said, “water that normally would flow in the river or be in the soil ends up instead in the atmosphere.”

[…]

Past southwestern droughts were notable for declines in precipitation. But today’s droughts are different, he explained. Even in wet years, which will still occur as the climate changes, warmer conditions dry out the landscapes.

“With atmospheric warming, we’re getting what we’re calling ‘hot droughts’ or ‘hotter droughts,’” he said. “That means that they’re more and more influenced by these warm temperatures, and the warm temperatures tend to make the droughts more severe because they pull the moisture out of plants, they pull the moisture out of rivers and out of soil—and that moisture ends up in the atmosphere instead of where we normally like to have it.”

From 1952 until 1956, below-normal rainfall caused “critical water deficiencies in much of the southern half of the Nation,” according to a 1965 U.S. Department of the Interior report. The 1950s drought had widespread impacts on New Mexico’s communities and economy. Today’s drought conditions, which Overpeck explains have been moving around the Southwest for 19 years, are exacerbated by warmer temperatures. The global temperature is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it was in 1880, and the Southwest is warming at an even faster rate.

“What we’re seeing now in the drought that’s going on is that it’s more due to temperature increase and less due to precipitation deficit,” he said. And “hot drought” is what we should prepare to face in the future, too.

“More and more so, the droughts will really be defined by hotness, by warm temperatures that just suck the moisture out of the soil, suck the moisture out of our rivers,” he said. “And leaves the droughts an ever more devastating manifestation.”

GOCO funds two San Luis Valley projects

1869 Map of San Luis Parc of Colorado and Northern New Mexico. “Sawatch Lake” at the east of the San Luis Valley is in the closed basin. The Blanca Wetlands are at the south end of the lake.

From Great Outdoors Colorado via The Alamosa News:

The Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) board on Thursday announced funding awards for two San Luis Valley projects.

GOCO awarded the City of Alamosa $347,794 for construction of a community park in the Montaña Azul subdivision and awarded Costilla County a $225,274 grant to add approximately 125 acres to Batenburg Meadows, creating permanent access to public lands for residents along Rito Seco Creek. The projects were two of 14 selected for funding from a pool of 59, with funding requested totaling more than triple what was available.

The GOCO Local Park and Outdoor Recreation grant for Alamosa will help complete the first phase of building Montaña Azul Park, pictured above, which currently serves as a stormwater retention area. After development, the 5.6-acre park will continue to store storm water but will also provide close-to-home recreation for residents. The dual-purpose nature of the park makes it the first of its kind for the city.

The park is within walking distance of all Montaña Azul residents, who currently have no neighborhood park and who have cited transportation as a barrier to recreation, and is a short distance from Alamosa Elementary School, which will encourage more children and their families to play.

As part of phase one, centered around development of the eastern half of the park, the city will create an irrigated, youth soccer field, which will allow for multiple uses beyond soccer including football, Frisbee ®, and kite-flying. It will build a concrete basketball court, a quarter-mile walking track with native plantings, a community pavilion and shade structures, and an adaptive, ADA-accessible playground.

Construction will begin in April, and the park is slated to open to the public this fall.

To date, GOCO has invested nearly $7 million in projects in Alamosa County and has conserved more than 10,000 acres of land there. GOCO funding has supported the Alamosa Multi-Use Pavilion and Ice Rink, the Cole Park Skatepark, and the Recreation Inspires Opportunity (Alamosa RIO!) effort to get kids and families outside.

For the Costilla County project, the county has partnered with Colorado Open Lands to acquire 14 parcels comprising 125 acres of land, a particularly rare opportunity to acquire forested land for public use. Expanding Batenburg Meadows was identified by local residents as a top priority, and expanding the park will legitimize and increase public access.

Youth Conservation Camp has long been a rite of passage for generations of Costilla County youth to learn how to fish, get their hunter safety cards, and learn about local wildlife, but the program was in danger of ending due to accidental trespassing. Acquiring the additional 125 acres of land will solve that issue not only for the camp but for local residents who use the area for picnicking, fishing, and collecting firewood and piñon nuts.

Expanding public access along Rito Seco Creek will allow the county to more effectively manage wildfire risk and overall forest health. Permanently protecting the land from subdivision will also conserve wildlife habitat for elk, deer, beaver, and turkey.

In addition to the GOCO grant, $225,000 from the US Forest Service will help Costilla County complete the land acquisitions. Costilla County expects to complete all 14 acquisitions by the end of 2018 and plans to partner with San Luis Valley Great Outdoors to build a trail connecting Rito Seco Park to Batenburg Meadows.

To date, GOCO has invested $10.1 million in projects in Costilla County and has conserved more than 5,000 acres of land there. GOCO funding recently supported the Brownie Hills conservation project, which will create critical public lands access in the area. GOCO grants have also supported the Sangre de Cristo Greenbelt Trail and the county’s outdoor fitness center and exercise park.

Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) invests a portion of Colorado Lottery proceeds to help preserve and enhance the state’s parks, trails, wildlife, rivers, and open spaces. GOCO’s independent board awards competitive grants to local governments and land trusts, and makes investments through Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Created when voters approved a Constitutional Amendment in 1992, GOCO has since funded more than 5,000 projects in urban and rural areas in all 64 counties without any tax dollar support. Visit GOCO.org for more information.

We are all neighbors along the Rio Grande — Wild Earth Guardians

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

From Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

To protect the river as a whole, we must join together in a basin-wide community

I admit that I personally had all but abandoned the 1,250 miles of the Rio Grande from Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico. It is difficult to work on more than 600 miles of the river, let alone the entire 1,896 miles. It seemed necessary for self-preservation. The reality of the problems the Rio Grande faces from source to sea is vast:

  • Climate change is predicted to reduce flows in the Rio Grande by 25 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in New Mexico, and over 50 percent in Texas and Mexico in the remainder of this century;
  • A border wall (or series of walls) could destroy connections between countries as well as migratory corridors for rare and beautiful ocelots and jaguars, among other species;
  • A 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande known as “the forgotten reach”, between El Paso and Presido, Texas (or Ojinaga, Mexico), is already channelized and bone-dry year round;
  • Flows in the 75-mile stretch of one of America’s first Wild & Scenic Rivers—the Rio Grande from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to south of Taos, NM—is in danger of disappearing due to unsustainable use in Colorado and implementation of the Rio Grande Compact, especially during dry years; and
  • The lack of flooding and peak flows, as well as the lack of accountability of agricultural water use from the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, threatens to increase ecological damage to one of the largest contiguous cottonwood forests in the world.
  • There is no doubt the solutions to these problems are complicated and hard, but we can chart a new course for this iconic river.

    San Luis Valley wetlands are critical to wildlife

    From The Valley Courier (Helen Smith):

    Wetlands are a critical part of the San Luis Valley. Not only are they a key water resource, but they also provide habitat for numerous bird species and bring tourism dollars to the local economy. They are truly part of what makes the Rio Grande Basin distinct.

    The San Luis Valley has three refuges that are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the direction of the United States Department of the Interior. They are the Monte Vista, Alamosa and Baca National Wildlife Refuges. The first refuge to be established was Monte Vista in 1952, followed by Alamosa in 1962, and finally the Baca in 2000. These areas make up the San Luis Valley Refuge Complex and are three in a system that consists of over 560 refuges nationwide. The Monte Vista Refuge is 14,804 acres and Alamosa comprises 12,026 acres and the Baca is 92,500 acres. The primary purpose of setting these lands aside is to protect vital wildlife corridors as well as water assets that are key to the well- being of the aquifer system that is crucial to the sustainability of the valley.

    These refuges also serve as prime habitat and nesting grounds for over 200 species of birds as well as other species of native wildlife such as deer, elk, beaver, and coyotes. The Alamosa Refuge is also home to the historic Mum Well which serves as a key data collection point for Colorado and San Luis Valley Water users. The primary purpose, is to protect lands that are important and that make the San Luis Valley a beautiful place. The landscapes seen in the refuges also highlight the distinct regions of the Valley as well.

    The Monte Vista Refuge was established for the purpose of protecting migratory bird species, especially the Sandhill Crane. The San Luis Valley U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office estimates that between 23 and 27,000 Sandhill Cranes make the San Luis Valley a rest stop during their annual migration to and from breeding grounds in the northern US.

    The success of the migration north in the spring from winter habitat in New Mexico and Texas to summer habitat in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Canada and south in the fall is based largely on the birds eating enough food in the SLV to complete the trek, survive winter, and arrive healthy enough to nest and raise the next generation. Grain left after harvest on privately owned fields in the SLV is a major food source necessary to complete a successful migration. Nearly the entirety of the Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes passes through Colorado during their migration. The feed from the abundant barley and rest in wetlands that the cranes get in the SLV is critical to the success of the migration and upcoming breeding, and the most important part of the migration in Colorado is the availability of grain and roost sites in the SLV.

    Colorado Parks and Wildlife also protect wetland areas across the San Luis Valley. According to a 2012 report by CPW, “The value of wetlands can’t be overstated. About 125 species that are found here in Colorado are dependent on wetlands for their survival, including 98 species of migratory birds.” The species that benefit include waterfowl and 20 priority non-game species.

    The agency mitigates wetlands based on a set of criteria that include hydrology, vegetation, land use and conservation. To manage the hydrology the goal is to maintain adequate width and depth (4–8 inches deep) for roosting, maintain flowing water to prevent spread of disease. Vegetation goals include monitoring for the availability of vegetation that produces food, controlling woody vegetation where needed, control encroaching coarse emergent vegetation and the use of livestock and controlled burns to maintain grass overstory.

    Land use surveys look at the roosting and feeding sites, provide grit (e.g., pebbles and small gravel) at roost sites if needed, and remove unused fences. Conservation goals include monitoring harvest rates to maintain desirable population numbers and forming and maintaining partnerships between agencies agricultural producers, landowners and the public.

    Like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also work to protect wetland habitats. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area, managed by the BLM, serves as a refuge for birds, fish and other wildlife. The wetlands are a key area for birds since they provide habitat for migrating water and shorebirds. The bald eagle and the peregrine falcon also use the wetlands. Other Species of Management Priority that have been documented are American bittern, avocet, common yellowthroat, eared grebe, Forster’s tern, greater Sandhill crane, hen harrier, Savannah sparrow, snowy egret, sora rail, western grebe and yellow-headed blackbird. Shorebirds such as gulls, sandpipers and pelicans are at home in the salty environment, as well as 158 other species including a colony of breeding Snowy Plover. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat is a duck breeding concentration area, with mallards by far the most common, but good numbers of pintail and green-winged teal are also utilizing the area.

    The Valleys farms and ranches also support the areas wetlands and see them as important part of the hydrologic cycle. Wetlands work as a sponge that helps to ensure that working ag lands maintain a water source in lean years and symbiotically rotationally grazed wetland remain healthier due do reduced grass overstory and less noxious weeds. San Luis Valley agriculture producers and water managers are partnering to do timed releases of water from area reservoirs to only supply irrigation water, but to insure river and wetland habitats benefit.

    In the long run, wetlands provide wildlife habitat, grazing opportunities, groundwater recharge and sustainability of water resources.

    Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

    #Runoff news: Early peak for the #ColoradoRiver? #COriver #Drought

    From the Associated Press via KUTV.com:

    The Daily Sentinel reports that peak flows are expected Sunday on the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, at about 8,500 cubic feet per second near the Utah line.

    Only the dry years of 1977, 2002 and 2012 have seen lower levels in 85 years of records kept by the Colorado River Conservation District. If Sunday is the peak, it will also be the third-earliest, according to district records.

    Persistent drought is affecting water levels in the river…

    River managers forecast Arizona’s Lake Powell will receive only 42 percent of its long-term average flow from the Colorado this year.

    From The Aspen Daily News (Jordan Curet):

    The Roaring Fork Conservancy is a nonprofit that works on behalf of its namesake watershed, which includes all water sources from high in the Elk Mountains and the Fryingpan basin that confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. The Roaring Fork Conservancy works year-round to provide the best science possible to decision makers and the public, taking real-world water issues and interpreting them at various levels. This includes understanding snowpack and how much water goes where, getting to know the macroinvertebrates that live in our streams and working on policy issues.

    “Our mission is to inspire individuals to explore, value and protect the Roaring Fork watershed,” said Roaring Fork Conservancy education and outreach coordinator Liza Mitchell. If people value the water, they are more likely to work together for its protection, she added.

    “Right now, we are at 61 percent of normal — that’s the snow-water content in the snowpack,” Mitchell said.

    The numbers are compared to a 30-year rolling average, from 1980-2010. “So it does not include the past eight years in that average. 2012 was a pretty dry year; in relation we are sitting just higher in terms of snowpack at this time of year,” she said.

    The seasonal snowpack peaked around April 7 and has been decreasing since then. Some of that snowpack evaporates, some saturates the soil and the rest flows into streams and rivers. Most everything below 10,000 feet has melted, but there is still a high-alpine snowpack that, while well below average for May, is still to come down as the temperatures rise.

    “We are starting to see stream flows increase,” Mitchell said. “They are still on the up, so it hasn’t peaked yet. That said, they are not predicted to get anywhere near average stream flow.”

    Cleansing flow is critical

    According to Mitchell, the local ecosystem has evolved over millennia in a manner dominated by the snowmelt cycle.

    “There is a pattern of low flow all winter, while it’s snowing. [Then] it rises, it peaks, and then it drops back down to base flow.”

    The ecological processes that occur during peak flow are of the utmost importance for the overall health of the rivers and surrounding environs. Peak flows can move rocks, which changes the substrate of the stream, knocking loose algae and debris from previous years. As the water pushes sediment downstream and clears up space between the rocks, the base of the food web can grow in those interstitial places. Macroinvertebrates are aquatic insects, at their juvenile or nymph stage. May flies, caddis flies and stone flies are most common in the Roaring Fork watershed.

    “If you never have those peak flows, flushing flows, then those areas build up with mud and suffocate the macroinvertebrates; without macroinvertebrates you don’t have trout; without trout there is no food for eagles and ospreys,” Mitchell said. Runoff also inundates the flood plains, bringing water to the riparian vegetation, which then provides shade to keep the streams cool.

    Peak flows also assist in scouring the river channel, creating a spawning habitat for trout.

    “Trout like loosely packed cobbles with water flowing through — it’s good for bug habitat as well as for laying eggs,” said Kendall Bakich, aquatic biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “This is particularly an issue with recurring low-flow years, so it may not be an issue this year as long as we return to average in the future.”

    From The Durango Herald (Jonathan Romeo):

    The snowpack of the San Juan Mountains face an increasingly alarming problem that may further vex water issues in the West: dust…

    Early findings aren’t good.

    In 2003, water districts throughout Colorado, concerned about the issue, put funding toward the creation of the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies, which among other tasks, researches the effects of dust on snow.

    While the impacts of dust deposited on snowpack can be found in other parts of Colorado, the southwest part of the state – and the San Juan Mountains in particular – are by far the most troubled by the issue.

    “This is really ground zero,” Phil Straub, a researcher with the Center for Snow & Avalanche Studies, said last week from atop Red Mountain Pass. “It’s a growing concern that’s gaining more attention.”

    In Southwest Colorado, here’s how it works:

    Windstorms out of the southwest pick up dust from deserts in parts of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and New Mexico and carry it to the mountain snowpack in the high country of the San Juan Mountains.

    When dust lands on snowpack, it speeds up the rate snow melts – think how much hotter a black car is than a white car, Straub said.

    On average, this process causes snowpack to melt off 25 to 50 days earlier than normal based on about 100 years worth of data. And, runoff can decrease by 5 percent because of water evaporating through plants and soils as well as snow turning to water vapor.

    Naturally, this causes issues for water districts in timing dam releases for ranchers, and it causes the loss of water supply for the Colorado River basin, which supports more than 40 million people and millions of acres of agriculture.

    In a study published in October 2010 for the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, researchers painted a grim outlook if the issue went unchecked.

    “Climate-change studies suggest that earlier runoff and a reduction in flow will cause management challenges, including uncertainty in timing of reservoir release, large reservoir fluctuations and regular shortages,” the study said…

    Researchers from the University of Northern Arizona published a paper in 2016 that looked back on periods of dust over the last 3,000 years. Medieval times, for instance, were associated with high levels of dust.

    “These records indicate the Southwest is naturally prone to dustiness,” according to the study.

    Add human-caused factors like climate change, overgrazing and poor water management, and the situation enters the realm of unprecedented.

    “These new records confirm anomalous dustiness in the 19th and 20th centuries, associated with recent land disturbance, drought and livestock grazing,” the report said. “As global and regional temperatures rise … the Southwest will likely become dustier, driving negative impacts on snowpack and water availability, as well as human health.”

    Since 2003, researchers at the Center for Snow & Avalanche studies have noted this increase. It is likely that the San Juan Mountains have the longest and most comprehensive study on the dust-on-snow effect in the country, Straub said.

    This year, for instance, the region has already tracked seven dust storms that left a layer of dirt on snow in the San Juan Mountains, and the season for dust storms isn’t over yet. The average amount of dust storms in a full season, which can last until late June, is about seven, data indicates.

    “We’re still learning the impacts,” Straub said. “And dust is only one part in understanding the changes to snow hydrology.”

    Bruce Whitehead, executive director for the Southwest Water Conservation District, which manages the waters of nine counties in Southwest Colorado, said there’s a consensus about the need to see how dust affects water in the West.

    “It’s just one more tool we have to look and plan for runoff, or in this case, maybe how it’s going to impact drought conditions,” Whitehead said. “We really are on the front lines.”

    From The Durango Herald (Jim Mimiaga):

    A minor boost of snowfall in April helped to stave off more shortages for local farmers who rely on McPhee Reservoir, water officials said.

    As of this week, the forecast is still for full-service farmers to receive about 17 inches per acre, said Ken Curtis, of the Dolores Water Conservancy District, which manages the reservoir.

    But the final runoff amount will not be known until June, and it will be impacted in coming weeks by variables such as wind, precipitation, dust on snow and soil moisture. Overall, the spring runoff into McPhee is dismal because of a winter with barely 50 percent of average snowpack, Curtis said.

    It is thought that dry mountain soils from a dry fall are absorbing a lot of the water before it makes it to the river. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Southwest Colorado is in an exceptional drought, the most severe of five categories.

    When the reservoir fills during more average winters, farmers typically receive a full allocation of 22 inches per acre, enough for three cuttings of alfalfa.

    But significant carryover water from the previous winter’s above-average snowpack is saving farmers this year, Curtis said. “As far as runoff, we are getting close to the project’s worst year in 2002, but the difference this year is we have good carryover,” he said.

    Based on 30-year runoff data, average McPhee inflow is 295,000 acre-feet of water from the Dolores River Basin from April through July.

    This year, it is expected to be 62,000 acre-feet, or 21 percent of normal. In 2002, the reservoir received just 45,000 acre-feet, and farmers suffered more drastic shortages, receiving less than 50 percent allocation.

    For boaters, there will be no whitewater release below McPhee dam. Also, the Dolores River above McPhee will not run as high or as long this year.

    Peak flows from Rico to Dolores are coming early, and are not expected to reach more than 1,000 cubic feet per second, down from more typical peak flows of 2,000-2,500 cfs. Currently the river is running at 700 cfs at Dolores, but boatable flows are expected to end by before early June, instead of in late June or early July during more average years.

    The next chance for substantial moisture in Southwest Colorado is the monsoon season of July through September, when summer monsoons typically draw up subtropical moisture from Mexico.

    “Next year’s supply will depend slightly on monsoons later this summer and mostly on next winter’s snowpack,” Curtis said. “Ending the 2018 water year with little to no carryover increases the risk of a deeper project shortage next 2019 irrigation season.”

    Montezuma Valley Irrigation has more senior rights than McPhee Reservoir, including a direct flow right on the Dolores River up to 700 cfs. The private company stores water in Groundhog, Narraquinnep and McPhee reservoirs and closely monitors water supplies to determine potential impacts to customers.

    A recent court case that upheld a new 900 cfs in-stream flow right on the lower Dolores River from April 15 to June 15 below the San Miguel confluence does not impact McPhee Reservoir, officials said.

    The in-stream flow rights are junior to McPhee Reservoir’s more senior rights so they have no impact on the local water supply. Decreed by the state for environmental purposes, the new Dolores River in-stream flows are only available when snowpack produces sufficient natural runoff to provide the 900 cfs.

    From The Arizona Daily Star (Tony Davis):

    Longer-range outlooks for Lake Mead and the Central Arizona Project are increasingly grim due to this year’s bad runoff, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said Wednesday.

    The result is that the bureau is pushing hard for states in both the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River to reach agreement this year on drought planning to ease the pain of future shortages, after negotiations have so far failed.

    The bureau’s new forecast for the river shows that the chance of a CAP shortage next year is almost nil, but in 2020, it’s over 50 percent. Looking farther ahead, the chances of a shortage for 2021 through 2023 exceed 60 percent each year, the bureau said. The CAP provides drinking water to Tucson and Phoenix.

    The gloomy forecasts are based on this year’s expected poor spring-summer runoff into Lake Powell at the Utah border from the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The most recent forecast, last week, was 42 percent of average runoff.

    This year “has brought record-low snowpack levels to many locations in the Colorado River Basin, making this the driest 19-year period on record,” the bureau said in a news release announcing the new forecasts. “With drought and low runoff conditions dating back to 2000, this current period is one of the worst drought cycles over the past 1,200 plus years.”

    Specifically, the bureau predicted:

  • A 52 percent risk of a 2020 shortage.
  • Shortage odds of 64 to 68 percent in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
  • The most likely shortage would cut CAP deliveries by about 20 percent. Those cuts would mainly slice water supplies to Central Arizona farmers and the Arizona Water Bank, a state program that recharges Colorado River water. Such a shortage will occur when Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet at the end of a given year.

    Cuts would likely also affect the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, a related agency to CAP that buys and recharges river water into the ground to compensate for groundwater pumping that serves new suburban development.

    Starting in 2021, the odds are more than 20 percent of Arizona facing a more severe shortage, in which it would lose about 26 percent of its CAP water. That shortage would happen when Lake Mead drops to between 1,050 feet and 1,025 feet.

    Lake Mead sat at nearly 1,085 feet elevation at the end of April. It’s expected to drop to 1,079 feet by the end of December.

    The Lower Basin Drought Contingency Plan would require Arizona, Nevada and California to reduce their use of river water more than already required when the first shortages hit. The plan’s purpose is to prevent Lake Mead from dropping to catastrophically low levels over the coming decade.

    The plan’s approval has been delayed significantly. That’s in large part because of conflicts between the CAP and the Arizona Department of Water Resources over how this state’s share of the river’s water should be managed and who should manage it.

    The state water department and Gov. Doug Ducey tried to get the Legislature to pass bills this year to make conservation for the plan easier, but the Legislature didn’t go along.

    Last week, representatives of the three Lower Basin states met in Las Vegas to discuss river issues. At the meeting, Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman sought to get the CAP and the state water department to meet and settle their dispute, said Sally Lee, an ADWR spokeswoman, and Bart Fisher, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California.

    From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

    Last week, a new study in the peer-reviewed journal, Nature, also heralded troubling news. According to the authors, more than 90 percent of snow monitoring sites in the western United States showed declines in snowpack—and 33 percent showed significant declines. The trend is visible during all months, states and climates, they write, but are largest in the spring and in the Pacific states and locations with mild winter climates. To drive home the numbers, they noted the decrease in springtime snow water equivalent—the amount of water in snow—when averaged across the entire western U.S. is 25 to 50 cubic kilometers, or about the volume of water Hoover Dam was built to hold in Lake Mead.

    And conditions on the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, don’t look good this year.

    The March forecast for the Colorado River Basin remains “well below average.” Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, has already dipped below 40 percent of capacity and its “bathtub ring” is about 130 feet tall. As of Sunday, the lake’s water level was 1,088 feet above sea level. If it reaches 1,075 feet, that will trigger federal rules that cut the amount of water Nevada, Arizona and California can take.

    Meanwhile, water users in the three states, including cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the Central Arizona Project, irrigation districts in southern California and tribes, are all keeping a close eye on Lake Mead—and trying to work out a drought contingency plan to avoid those federally-mandated cuts if the reservoir keeps dropping.

    Hard choices

    At the same time, water managers in New Mexico know they’re also in for a tough year.

    The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation watches snowpack and streamflow forecasts closely, said spokeswoman Mary Carlson: “And the current outlook is grim,” she said.

    “We are grateful in years like this, when it appears we will have very little runoff from snowmelt, that we are able to rely on the water that has been stored in our reservoirs in previous years,” she said. “Without those reservoirs, conditions on the Rio Grande would be much more extreme in a year like this.”

    Reclamation currently has about 12,400 acre-feet of supplemental water in storage, she said, and the agency expects to get another 9,000 to 14,000 acre feet to augment Middle Rio Grande flows.

    “We are working with our partners, including our sister agency the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine when and how to use that water to benefit the Rio Grande silvery minnow and other endangered species in the area,” she said.

    The Rio Grande Silvery Minnow was listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. Two years later, in 1996 about 90 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque dried. Biologists scrambled over the fish, environmental groups sued, political wars waged and water managers tried to figure out how to serve cities and farmers while keeping the fish from going extinct. For 15 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) required water managers to keep at least 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water in the Albuquerque stretch of the river—even if it dried to the south, as it did many years, typically between Las Lunas and the southern boundary of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Then in 2016, FWS pivoted. Under its new biological opinion for the silvery minnow, the agency said water operations in the Middle Rio Grande were not jeopardizing the fish’s survival. It stopped requiring flow minimums and instead expects Reclamation and its partners to manage the river to improve fish densities.

    David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) said the district still has water stored in upstream reservoirs for the valley’s farmers. “But not enough. Reclamation has storage for fish, but not enough,” he said. “(There are) some hard choices facing us.”

    Typically, irrigation season runs from March 1 to Oct. 31, but due to dry conditions and low soil moisture, this year, the district started its diversions earlier.

    Last year dealt water managers a good hand, Gensler said, but this year will be the opposite. And 2018 is shaping up to be similar to that notoriously-dry 1996. “I’m optimistic we will all come together and manage through it,” he said.

    ‘This is not a place we’ve been’

    It’s not only the middle valley that’s causing concern. WildEarth Guardians attorney Jen Pelz said she’s been looking at flows in northern New Mexico in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which Congress passed in 1968 to protect “outstanding” river stretches. Specifically, when looking at Rio Grande records from the late 1960s until now, she noticed some very low years, such as 2013.

    “I was looking at how many days were below 100 and 50 cfs, and it was shocking,” she said. “This year’s way worse, and it’s going to be a problem. It’s going to be a huge challenge to do anything good for the river.”

    “Colorado’s attitude is that they only have to deliver what the [Rio Grande Compact] said, and if that means no boating in New Mexico, that’s not their problem,” she said, noting that about 150 cfs typically comes in below Colorado and also feeds the Wild and Scenic stretch. “But I’m skeptical and a little scared of what those gages are going to look like, and whether the recreation community in Taos can survive off really low flows.”

    She’s also wary about what might happen to the silvery minnow population in the Middle Rio Grande this year. After 2017’s flows, the fish’s population saw a bump, and the fall monitoring numbers were good. “My worry, is all the fish in the river you did have, and the stress of the low flows for an extended time—April through October, large stretches of the river can and will dry —and will you find any fish in the river in October?”

    She doesn’t want to see the fish’s population boom, only to bust again. “I’m really concerned about going on good faith that Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, MRGCD will do the right thing,” Pelz said. “They’re stressed and they have their own constituencies.”

    Pelz added that last year’s snowpack and water supply was an anomaly in the new climate regime.

    “Last year lulled people into this place where, there will always be a wet year that follows,” she said. “It’s swinging back the other way: now, people are hoping 2019 will be a 2017, when really it could be the first of the 2011-2013 period.”

    Existing laws, like the Endangered Species Act, don’t do enough to protect species and habitats, she said. In fact, she said, it’s time for a whole new language about rivers, as the region continues warming. “This is not a place we’ve been,” she said. “And we don’t know what it looks like.”

    Jury’s still out

    River runner and conservationist Steve Harris lives alongside the Rio Grande above New Mexico’s major diversions. Right now near Pilar, the river is clipping along at about 500 cfs, he said.

    “It’s beautiful, but soon, irrigation will start and we’ll see what’s really on the mountain,” he said. “Last year was a real joy because it was good for the river and all its denizens, and we had a great rafting season.”

    According to Harris, New Mexico has been bailed out by late-season snow before. “But when you think about the long-term climate projections—later onset of snowpack, a shorter snow season, earlier runoff—to me, this year is fulfilling the prophecy.”

    Having lived for decades in Terlingua, Texas, Harris also pays attention to the river in his old stomping grounds around Big Bend State Park. “Fifteen years ago, I had a sense we might be moving toward managing the river below the irrigation in El Paso and Juarez,” he said of the roughly 400 miles of the river that are dry in Texas. “Now, it’s not on the horizon to restore the ‘forgotten river.’”

    The river dries in southern New Mexico, too. Except during irrigation season when water is moved to farmers, or when storms flood the channel, about 100 miles of the Rio Grande above Mesilla is dry.

    “I’m at the point in my life, where I’m thinking, ‘So, what are we doing about the Rio Grande problem? How is society responding?’ Of course, the jury is still out,” he said. “People care, but people tend to be paralyzed by pessimism sometimes, particularly the policy makers, heads of agencies and legislators.”

    That doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on the Rio Grande. “I think the Rio Grande’s problem is people expected a lot more out of it than it could normally deliver,” he said. “There has to be a shift of focus back toward the Rio Grande and the dawning general realization that the river’s in trouble if we don’t act, and act on a lot of fronts.”

    #RioGrande River: “Once the water for the farmers runs out, the river will just dry up and that could come as soon as July” — @JFleck #drought #runoff #aridification

    From InkStain (John Fleck):

    The final forecast numbers put this year’s runoff at just 18 percent of the long term average. The flow right now at Embudo, as the Rio Grande is entering New Mexico’s populous middle valleys, is the second lowest it’s ever been at this time of year. Records there go back to 1889 – the oldest USGS gauge in the nation.

    It’s not clear yet whether we’ll have complete drying through the Albuquerque reach, but it’s a possibility. The last time that happened – a zero cfs reading at the Central Avenue gauge – was 1977. The last time we’ve been under 30 cfs – which is still a trickle, but for all practical purposes is dry – was 1983.

    From KOB.com (Eddie Garcia):

    “Once the water for the farmers runs out, the river will just dry up and that could come as soon as July,” Fleck said.

    So far, Fleck says, it’s the second-worst year on record for the once-mighty river.

    “Unprecedented in many, many decades – certainly in the lifetime of most of the people who live in Albuquerque today – to see a dry Rio Grande through the middle of this town,” he said.

    Some areas have already dried up, like a section near Bosque del Apache in Socorro County. That’s why Fleck says, it’s more important than ever to conserve water.

    A dry #RioGrande in springtime isn’t normal. But it will be — New Mexico Political Report #ActOnClimate

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

    From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

    In early April, when the Middle Rio Grande should have been rushing with snowmelt, New Mexico’s largest river dried. It started through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, spreading to more than 20 miles by now. The Albuquerque stretch may dry come June or July, which would mean some 120 miles dry altogether this summer.

    Already, if you live in Albuquerque, you may have peered over the bridges and seen sandbars and slow water this spring. Even in places like Velarde or Española, historically low flows are trickling through your town, the result of not enough snow in the mountains this winter.

    To see this happening in spring is shocking. But we shouldn’t be surprised. We knew this could happen. Just like we knew the climate was changing.

    We know, for example, that warming makes an arid climate even drier.

    On average, our snowpack is decreasing, moving north and melting earlier. That leads to less water in the rivers when we need it—spring and early summer before monsoons arrive.

    And even when there is snow, warmer temperatures transform more of it to water vapor before it can liquefy its way into the watershed. Warming dries out soils and sends more dust into the air. That’s bad news, both for breathing creatures and snowpack, as topsoil-coated snowpack melts faster.

    Warming means less water in rivers and reservoirs, and also less water underground.

    Groundwater isn’t being recharged through snowmelt and streamflows, and we’re pumping more to compensate for the lack of surface water. New Mexicans survived the drought of the 1950s by pumping groundwater when the rivers slowed and the rains failed to fall. Since then, we’ve kept pumping, depleting aquifers and groundwater supplies.

    Warmer, drier conditions also mean bigger, hotter wildfires and a longer wildfire season.

    And after the fires, some of our forests can’t regenerate. Where they once thrived, ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests can’t survive because it’s too warm—not to mention dry. In some places, even hardy junipers are drying out and dying off.

    Before the Dome Fire and then Las Conchas, which burned here in the Jemez Mountains seven years ago, this was a dense conifer forest. Today, the climate is too warm for those trees to return.

    In some places across this 30,000-acre burn scar, aspens and locust trees are sprouting where firs used to grow. In other places, the ground remains bare. When rains fall here, floods drive torrents of mud, ash and debris downstream.

    Climate change means our forests change; our rivers and our grasslands change. It means our cities and small towns, farms and orchards change.

    And we’ve known this for a long time.

    In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisers told him humans were “unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by burning within a few generations fossil fuels that had accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. The carbon dioxide humans were injecting into the atmosphere would cause changes, they wrote, that would harm human beings.

    In 1988, the New York Times reported on its front page that the Earth was warming. NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress, urging action to cut carbon emissions.

    We knew what was happening.

    In 2005, New Mexico released a report on the potential effects of climate change on the state. The 51-page summary report laid out a range of problems and potential solutions, related to everything from water and infrastructure to public health, wildfire and environmental justice.

    New Mexicans then elected a governor who ended all state programs under her authority related to climate change.

    Ten years later, scientists, economists and hydrologists worked together to understand New Mexico’s drought vulnerabilities. They handed off a report to the legislature that revealed problems with groundwater supplies in the Lower Rio Grande.

    Our state Legislature didn’t renew their funding.

    For decades, there have been scientific papers, government reports, planning documents, economic studies and international agreements.

    We knew what was going to happen.

    And yet, here we are.

    No matter what you might hear from certain voices, this drying in the Middle Rio Grande is not normal for springtime.

    That’s not to say that the river here has never dried in the spring, since records have been kept or before.

    But just because something has happened before doesn’t mean it’s normal.

    As it continues happening—as a river that supports millions of people in three states and two countries continues to dry—we all need to pay attention.

    We also need to understand what biological, chemical and hydrological impacts are occurring, says Clifford Dahm, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology and an expert on intermittent and ephemeral rivers.

    “The aquatic creatures that live in the river, as it’s drying and staying dry longer, are going to change,” he said. “There will be a shift towards completely different communities of fish, algae, invertebrates and trees.”

    Right now, we don’t know how quickly those shifts will occur, which species will survive, die or recover. But when the water table drops to more than ten feet below the surface, we do know cottonwood trees struggle and then die, Dahm said.

    Right now, we know that in the Rio Grande Basin, warming will lead to a four to fourteen percent reduction in flow by the 2030s and an eight to 29 percent reduction by the 2080s.

    On the Colorado River—which New Mexico also relies upon—scientists have predicted a 20 to 30 percent decrease in flows by 2050. And a 35 to 55 percent decrease by the end of the century.

    Even on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, warming will decrease flows by about 5 to ten percent due to decreasing snowmelt runoff.