FromColorado Public Radio (Kate Perdoni) via KSUT Public Radio:
In the small Colorado village of San Francisco and its surrounding villages, the original acequias are still operational and are often maintained and used by descendants of the first settlers of present-day Colorado.
“We’re a land and water based people. I am a Chicana, I am a child of the corn. My parents were farmers,” said Junita Martinez, a parciante (water-rights holder) and irrigator on the San Francisco Acequia. Her husband, José, was born in San Francisco. José’s lineage goes back to the initial settlers of the community.
In this village, named after Saint Francis – the patron saint of animals and ecology – water is life.
“It gives us what we need to live. It grows our crops,” said Martinez.
The property’s main aceqiua, an offshoot of San Francisco Creek, begins in San Francisco canyon about four miles from their home, Martinez explained. Springs made of snow melt eventually pool into the small beginnings of the creek. This same stream widens further down the mountain, then diverts into ditches that reach into each field. An elegant system of hand, and now machine-dug waterways, feeds the whole landscape…
At over 8,000 feet in elevation, each of the nine local canyons provide a water source to surrounding Rio Culebra Watershed communities. Today, over 240 families irrigate more than 24,000 acres here, many using traditional acequia irrigation practices. These families grow traditional crops like corn, peas, potatoes, and beans adapted to the high altitude, dry climate, and short growing season…
Acequias require maintenance, community support and input, and increased education to maintain protections with changing times – and a changing climate. An acequia comisión is voted in by landowners each year, including a President, Treasurer, and Secretary. These elected officials work closely with the Mayordomo, or ditch rider, to keep track of water rights holders, schedule and facilitate water use, and decide how to divvy water in times of drought. Regardless of acreage, each landowner receives one vote.
“We get people from bigger cities, and they buy a huge ranch, and then they’re a little bit miffed and upset because their vote is only one vote – just like the gentleman with his little two acres,” Martinez said. “But it’s effective, and it’s survived almost 200 years. I think it’s worth saving.”
Historically, the community has ways of dealing with drought and water scarcity that envelope into part of the local tradition. When a year brings less snow, the community takes action.
“We have a very long tradition that works,” said Martinez. “We’re communal in the fact that the water has to be shared. If there’s not enough water, than our Mayordomo and our Comisión have to figure out who gets water.”
In times of drought, water might be limited to certain days per week, with each landowner receiving fewer turns.
A new study conducted by researchers from The University of New Mexico has found that wildfires — which have been increasing in frequency, severity and extent around the globe — are one of the largest drivers of aquatic impairment in the western United States, threatening our water supply.
The research, “Wildfires increasingly impact western U.S. fluvial networks,” was published recently in Nature Communications. Authors include former UNM graduate students Grady Ball (now at the U.S. Geological Service) and Justin Reale (now at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers); former postdoctoral researcher Peter Regier (now at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory); associate professor Ricardo González-Pinzón (Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering) and research assistant professor David Van Horn (Department of Biology).
The study found that about 6 percent of the length of all the streams and rivers in the western U.S. were directly affected by wildfire disturbances (defined by being located in burned areas) between 1984 and 2014, and that every year there are about 342 new kilometers of them directly affected. When the researchers accounted for the longitudinal propagation of water quality disturbances within and across watersheds, it was estimated that wildfires affect about 11 percent of the total stream and river length.
“More than 10 percent of the rivers in the western U.S. have been impacted by wildfires,” González-Pinzón said. “That’s a lot and puts wildfires as one of the top causes of water impairment in the country. It’s a big deal.”
The authors said that there have been few studies on the impact of wildfires on fluvial (river) networks, so this study is significant because it was the first large-scale analysis to utilize remote sensing of burn perimeter and severity, in-situ water quality monitoring, and longitudinal modeling to determine estimates of stream and river length impacted by wildfires at a continental scale.
“It is distressing to realize how little we know about the impacts of wildfires to rivers,” González-Pinzón said. “Especially because this is relevant to the daily life of those living in the western part of the country and particularly in New Mexico, a state that is currently and commonly experiencing up to 100 percent severe droughts.”
Although the direct impact of wildfires in places such as California has been widely reported, particularly in terms of lives and structures lost (the 2018 California wildfire season claimed 100 lives, damaged 24,000 structures and resulted in $2 billion in insurance claims, the study reports), the direct and extended impacts of wildfires have not been thoroughly quantified.
The study alerts that there is growing evidence that wildfires trigger cascading impacts in river networks. Although wildfires are not specifically mentioned on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Assessment, wildfire disturbances contribute to at least 10 of the top 20 most critical disturbances listed in the assessment, such as elevated sediments, nutrient enrichment, organic enrichment and oxygen depletion, elevated temperature, elevated metal concentrations, habitat alterations, elevated turbidity, flow alterations, elevated salinity and/or total dissolved solids, and changes to pH and conductivity. Since forested watersheds supply drinking water for around two-thirds of those living in the western U.S., the impact is massive, in terms of both economics and water security.
The authors point out that wildfires impact water flow and quality since they originate on hillslopes and cause decreased infiltration capacity and groundwater recharge, a severely reduced capacity for vegetation to grow on impacted land, and a higher frequency of landslides and avalanches. Also, dangerous substances including metals in levels that exceed the World Health Organization’s safe drinking water standards are found in surface water long after wildfires are extinguished.
Van Horn said one of the motivations for this study was witnessing the impacts of the 2011 Las Conchas wildfire, the second-largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, resulting in rapid and massive flooding in the burned area and a measurable decrease in the water quality of the Rio Grande near the burned site of hundreds of kilometers downstream.
“We were fortunate in a sense to have the fire in our highly instrumented back yard, where we could study its impacts as it was happening,” he said.
There was a dramatic decrease in oxygen in the water, as well as the transportation of large quantities of ash and sediment that forced a two-month shutdown of the City of Albuquerque’s only surface water intake, which provides about 70 percent of the drinking water to the area.
“Wildfires are impacting fluvial networks in time and spatial scales that we don’t fully understand,” Van Horn said. “Thus, we need to investigate how long and how far they remain an issue in watersheds.”
“What we found was concerning, and there is a huge need for more research to be done,” González-Pinzón said.
In the near future, their team will focus on creating rapid response teams that can conduct research safely, on-demand, soon after wildfires are contained. That research will focus on answering how far downstream can wildfire disturbances propagate in fluvial networks and what are the main controlling factors. Due to climate change and current forest management practices that have allowed fuels to build up instead of naturally burning in smaller fires, wildfires are only predicted to become worse in the future.
“We can’t really engineer an easy solution to this because it occurs at the scale of continents, but we definitely need to improve how we can increase the resilience of aquatic ecosystems and alert people about the impacts of water quality degradation driven by wildfires to their day-to-day lives; that means that we need to acknowledge that wildfires will continue to happen and that we need to learn how to deal with them,” González-Pinzón said.
Funding for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Upper Rio Grande Water Operations Model.
In the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades. These regions nevertheless experienced extended Medieval-era droughts that were more persistent than any historical event, providing crucial targets in the paleoclimate record for benchmarking the severity of future drought risks. We use an empirical drought reconstruction and three soil moisture metrics from 17 state-of-the-art general circulation models to show that these models project significantly drier conditions in the later half of the 21st century compared to the 20th century and earlier paleoclimatic intervals. This desiccation is consistent across most of the models and moisture balance variables, indicating a coherent and robust drying response to warming despite the diversity of models and metrics analyzed. Notably, future drought risk will likely exceed even the driest centuries of the Medieval Climate Anomaly (1100–1300 CE) in both moderate (RCP 4.5) and high (RCP 8.5) future emissions scenarios, leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium.
Millennial-length hydroclimate reconstructions over Western North America (1–4) feature notable periods of extensive and persistent Medieval-era droughts. Such “megadrought” events exceeded the duration of any drought observed during the historical record and had profound impacts on regional societies and ecosystems (2, 5, 6). These past droughts illustrate the relatively narrow view of hydroclimate variability captured by the observational record, even as recent extreme events (7–9) highlighted concerns that global warming may be contributing to contemporary droughts (10, 11) and will amplify drought severity in the future (11–15). A comprehensive understanding of global warming and 21st century drought therefore requires placing projected hydroclimate trends within the context of drought variability over much longer time scales (16, 17). This would also allow us to establish the potential risk (that is, likelihood of occurrence) of future conditions matching or exceeding the severest droughts of the last millennium.
Quantitatively comparing 21st century drought projections from general circulation models (GCMs) to the paleo-record is nevertheless a significant technical challenge. Most GCMs provide soil moisture diagnostics, but their land surface models often vary widely in terms of parameterizations and complexity (for example, soil layering and vegetation). There are few large-scale soil moisture measurements that can be easily compared to modeled soil moisture, and none for intervals longer than the satellite record. Instead, drought is typically monitored in the real world using offline models or indices that can be estimated from more widely measured data, such as temperature and precipitation.
One common metric is the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) (18), widely used for drought monitoring and as a target variable for proxy-based reconstructions (1, 2). PDSI is a locally normalized index of soil moisture availability, calculated from the balance of moisture supply (precipitation) and demand (evapotranspiration). Because PDSI is normalized on the basis of local average moisture conditions, it can be used to compare variability and trends in drought across regions. Average moisture conditions (relative to a defined baseline) are denoted by PDSI = 0; negative PDSI values indicate drier than average conditions (droughts), and positive PDSI values indicate wetter than normal conditions (pluvials). PDSI is easily calculated from GCMs using variables from the atmosphere portion of the model (for example, precipitation, temperature, and humidity) and can be compared directly to observations. However, whereas recent work has demonstrated that PDSI is able to accurately reflect the surface moisture balance in GCMs (19), other studies have highlighted concerns that PDSI may overestimate 21st century drying because of its relatively simple soil moisture accounting and lack of direct CO2 effects that are expected to reduce evaporative losses (12, 20, 21). We circumvent these concerns by using a more physically based version of PDSI (13) (based on the Penman-Monteith potential evapotranspiration formulation) in conjunction with soil moisture from the GCMs to demonstrate robust drought responses to climate change in the Central Plains (105°W–92°W, 32°N–46°N) and the Southwest (125°W–105°W, 32°N–41°N) regions of Western North America.
We calculate summer season [June-July-August (JJA)] PDSI and integrated soil moisture from the surface to ~30-cm (SM-30cm) and ~2- to 3-m (SM-2m) depths from 17 GCMs (tables S1 and S2) in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) database (22). We focus our analyses and presentation on the RCP 8.5 “business-as-usual” high emissions scenario, designed to yield an approximate top-of-atmosphere radiative imbalance of +8.5 W m−2 by 2100. We also conduct the same analyses for a more moderate emissions scenario (RCP 4.5).
Over the calibration interval (1931–1990), the PDSI distributions from the models are statistically indistinguishable from the North American Drought Atlas (NADA) (two-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≥ 0.05), although there are some significant deviations in some models during other historical intervals. North American drought variability during the historical period in both models and observations is driven primarily by ocean-atmosphere teleconnections, internal variability in the climate system that is likely to not be either consistent across models or congruent in time between the observations and models, and so such disagreements are unsurprising. In the multimodel mean, all three moisture balance metrics show markedly consistent drying during the later half of the 21st century (2050–2099) (Fig. 1; see figs. S1 to S4 for individual models). Drying in the Southwest is more severe (RCP 8.5: PDSI = −2.31, SM-30cm = −2.08, SM-2m = −2.98) than that over the Central Plains (RCP 8.5: PDSI = −1.89, SM-30cm = −1.20, SM-2m = −1.17). In both regions, the consistent cross-model drying trends are driven primarily by the forced response to increased greenhouse gas concentrations (13), rather than by any fundamental shift in ocean-atmosphere dynamics [indeed, there is a wide disparity across models regarding the strength and fidelity of the simulated teleconnections over North America (23)]. In the Southwest, this forcing manifests as both a reduction in cold season precipitation (24) and an increase in potential evapotranspiration (that is, evaporative demand increases in a warmer atmosphere) (13, 25) acting in concert to reduce soil moisture. Even though cold season precipitation is actually expected to increase over parts of California in our Southwest region (24, 26), the increase in evaporative demand is still sufficient to drive a net reduction in soil moisture. Over the Central Plains, precipitation responses during the spring and summer seasons (the main seasons of moisture supply) are less consistent across models, and the drying is driven primarily by the increased evaporative demand. Indeed, this increase in potential evapotranspiration is one of the dominant drivers of global drought trends in the late 21st century, and previous work with the CMIP5 archive demonstrated that the increased evaporative demand is likely to be sufficient to overcome precipitation increases in many regions (13). In the more moderate emissions scenario (RCP 4.5), both the Southwest (RCP 4.5: PDSI = −1.49, SM-30cm = −1.63, SM-2m = −2.39) and Central Plains (RCP 4.5: PDSI = −1.21, SM-30cm = −0.89, SM-2m = −1.17) still experience significant, although more modest, drying into the future, as expected (fig. S5).
In both regions, the model-derived PDSI closely tracks the two soil moisture metrics (figs. S6 and S7), correlating significantly for most models and model intervals (figs. S8 and S9). Over the historical simulation, average model correlations (Pearson’s r) between PDSI and SM-30cm are +0.86 and +0.85 for the Central Plains and Southwest, respectively. Correlations weaken very slightly for PDSI and SM-2m: +0.84 (Central Plains) and +0.83 (Southwest). The correlations remain strong into the 21st century, even as PDSI and the soil moisture variables occasionally diverge in terms of long-term trends. There is no evidence, however, for systematic differences between the PDSI and modeled soil moisture across the model ensemble. For example, whereas the PDSI trends are drier than the soil moisture condition over the Southwest in the ACCESS1-0 model, PDSI is actually less dry than the soil moisture in the MIROC-ESM and NorESM1-M simulations over the same region (fig. S7). These outlier observations, showing no consistent bias, in conjunction with the fact that the overall comparison between PDSI and modeled soil moisture is markedly consistent, provide mutually consistent support for the characterization of surface moisture balance by these metrics in the model projections.
For estimates of observed drought variability over the last millennium (1000–2005), we use data from the NADA, a tree-ring based reconstruction of JJA PDSI. Comparisons between the NADA and model moisture are shown in the bottom panels of Fig. 1. In the NADA, both the Central Plains (Fig. 2) and Southwest (Fig. 3) are drier during the Medieval megadrought interval (1100–1300 CE) than either the Little Ice Age (1501–1849) or historical periods (1850–2005). For nearly all models, the 21st century projections under the RCP 8.5 scenario reveal dramatic shifts toward drier conditions. Most models (indicated with a red dot) are significantly drier (one-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≤ 0.05) in the latter part of the 21st century (2050–2099) than during their modeled historical intervals (1850–2005). Strikingly, shifts in projected drying are similarly significant in most models when measured against the driest and most extreme megadrought period of the NADA from 1100 to 1300 CE (gray dots). Results are similar for the more moderate RCP 4.5 emissions scenario (figs. S10 and S11), which still indicates widespread drying, albeit at a reduced magnitude for many models. Although there is some spread across the models and metrics, only two models project wetter conditions in RCP 8.5. In the Central Plains, SM-2m is wetter in ACCESS1-3, with little change in SM-30cm and slightly wetter conditions in PDSI. In the Southwest, CanESM2 projects markedly wetter SM-2m conditions; PDSI in the same model is slightly wetter, whereas SM-30cm is significantly drier.
When the RCP 8.5 multimodel ensemble is pooled together (Fig. 4), projected changes in the Central Plains and Southwest (2050–2099 CE) for all three moisture balance metrics are significantly drier compared to both the modern model interval (1850–2005 CE) and 1100–1300 CE in the NADA (one-sided Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, p ≤ 0.05). In the case of SM-2m in the Southwest, the density function is somewhat flattened, with an elongated right (wet) tail. This distortion arises from the disproportionate contribution to the density function from the wetting in the five CanESM2 ensemble members. Even with this contribution, however, the SM-2m drying in the multimodel ensemble is still significant. Results are nearly identical for the pooled RCP 4.5 multimodel ensemble (fig. S12), which still indicates a significantly drier late 21st century compared to either the historical interval or Medieval megadrought period.
With this shift in the full hydroclimate distribution, the risk of decadal or multidecadal drought occurrences increases substantially. We calculated the risk (17) of decadal or multidecadal drought occurrences for two periods in our multimodel ensemble: 1950–2000 and 2050–2099 (Fig. 5). During the historical period, the risk of a multidecadal megadrought is quite small: <12% for both regions and all moisture metrics. Under RCP 8.5, however, there is ≥80% chance of a multidecadal drought during 2050–2099 for PDSI and SM-30cm in the Central Plains and for all three moisture metrics in the Southwest. Drought risk is reduced slightly in RCP 4.5 (fig. S13), with largest reductions in multidecadal drought risk over the Central Plains. Ultimately, the consistency of our results suggests an exceptionally high risk of a multidecadal megadrought occurring over the Central Plains and Southwest regions during the late 21st century, a level of aridity exceeding even the persistent megadroughts that characterized the Medieval era.
Within the body of literature investigating North American hydroclimate, analyses of drought variability in the historical and paleoclimate records are often separate from discussions of global warming–induced changes in future hydroclimate. This disconnection has traditionally made it difficult to place future drought projections within the context of observed and reconstructed natural hydroclimate variability. Here, we have demonstrated that the mean state of drought in the late 21st century over the Central Plains and Southwest will likely exceed even the most severe megadrought periods of the Medieval era in both high and moderate future emissions scenarios, representing an unprecedented fundamental climate shift with respect to the last millennium. Notably, the drying in our assessment is robust across models and moisture balance metrics. Our analysis thus contrasts sharply with the recent emphasis on uncertainty about drought projections for these regions (21, 27), including the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report (28).
Our results point to a remarkably drier future that falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America, conditions that may present a substantial challenge to adaptation. Human populations in this region, and their associated water resources demands, have been increasing rapidly in recent decades, and these trends are expected to continue for years to come (29). Future droughts will occur in a significantly warmer world with higher temperatures than recent historical events, conditions that are likely to be a major added stress on both natural ecosystems (30) and agriculture (31). And, perhaps most importantly for adaptation, recent years have witnessed the widespread depletion of nonrenewable groundwater reservoirs (32, 33), resources that have allowed people to mitigate the impacts of naturally occurring droughts. In some cases, these losses have even exceeded the capacity of Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two major surface reservoirs in the region (34, 35). Combined with the likelihood of a much drier future and increased demand, the loss of groundwater and higher temperatures will likely exacerbate the impacts of future droughts, presenting a major adaptation challenge for managing ecological and anthropogenic water needs in the region.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Estimates of drought variability over the historical period and the last millennium used the latest version of the NADA (1), a tree ring–based reconstruction of summer season (JJA) PDSI. All statistics were based on regional PDSI averages over the Central Plains (105°W–92°W, 32°N–46°N) and the Southwest (125°W–105°W, 32°N–41°N). We restricted our analysis to 1000–2005 CE; before 1000 CE, the quality of the reconstruction in these regions declines.
The 21st century drought projections used output from GCM simulations in the CMIP5 database (22) (table S1). All models represent one or more continuous ensemble members from the historical (1850–2005 CE) and RCP 4.5 (15 models available) and 8.5 (17 models available) emissions scenarios (2006–2099 CE). We used the same methodology as in (13) to calculate model PDSI for the full interval (1850–2099 CE), using the Penman-Monteith formulation of potential evapotranspiration. The baseline period for calibrating and standardizing the model PDSI anomalies was 1931–1990 CE, the same baseline period as the NADA PDSI. Negative model PDSI values therefore indicate drier conditions than the average for 1931–1990.
To augment the model PDSI calculations and comparisons with observed drought variability in the NADA, we also calculated standardized soil moisture metrics from the GCMs for two depths: ~30 cm (SM-30cm) and ~2 to 3 m (SM-2m) (table S2). For these soil moisture metrics, the total soil moisture from the surface was integrated to these depths and averaged over JJA. At each grid cell, we then standardized SM-30cm and SM-2m to match the same mean and interannual SD for the model PDSI over 1931–1990. This allows for direct comparison of variability and trends between model PDSI and model soil moisture and between the model metrics (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m) and the NADA (PDSI) while still independently preserving any low-frequency variability or trends in the soil moisture that may be distinct from the PDSI calculation. The soil moisture standardization does not impose any artificial constraints that would force the three metrics to agree in terms of variability or future trends, allowing SM-30cm and SM-2m to be used as indicators of drought largely independent of PDSI.
Risk of decadal and multidecadal megadrought occurrence in the multimodel ensemble is estimated from 1000 Monte Carlo realizations of each moisture balance metric (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m), as in (17). This method entails estimating the mean and SD of a given drought index (for example, PDSI or soil moisture) over a reference period (1901–2000), then subtracting that mean and SD from the full record (1850–2100) to produce a modified z score. The differences between the reference mean and SD are then used to conduct (white noise) Monte Carlo simulations of the future (2050–2100) to emulate the statistics of that era. The fraction of Monte Carlo realizations exhibiting a decadal or multidecadal drought are then calculated from each Monte Carlo simulation of each experiment in both regions considered here. Finally, these risks from each model are averaged together to yield the overall risk estimates reported here. Additional details on the methodology can be found in (17).
Fig. S1. For the individual models, ensemble mean soil moisture balance (PDSI, SM-30cm, and SM-2m) for 2050–2099: ACCESS1.0, ACCESS1.3, BCC-CSM1.1, and CanESM2.
Fig. S2. Same as fig. S1, but for CCSM4, CESM1-BGC, CESM-CAM5, and CNRM-CM5.
Fig. S3. Same as fig. S1, but for GFDL-CM3, GFDL-ESM2G, GFDL-ESM2M, and GISS-E2-R.
Fig. S4. Same as fig. S1, but for INMCM4.0,MIROC-ESM, MIROC-ESM-CHEM, NorESM1-M, and NorESM1-ME models.
Fig. S5. Same as Fig. 1, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S6. Regional average moisture balance time series (historical + RCP 8.5) from the first ensemble member of each model over the Central Plains.
Fig. S7. Same as fig. S6, but for the Southwest.
Fig. S8. Pearson’s correlation coefficients for three time intervals from the models over the Central Plains: PDSI versus SM-30cm, PDSI versus SM-2m, and SM-30cm versus SM-2m.
Fig. S9. Same as fig. S8, but for the Southwest.
Fig. S10. Same as Fig. 2, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S11. Same as Fig. 3, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S12. Same as Fig. 4, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Fig. S13. Same as Fig. 5, but for the RCP 4.5 scenario.
Table S1. Continuous model ensembles from the CMIP5 experiments (1850–2099, historical + RCP8.5 scenario) used in this analysis, including the modeling center or group that supplied the output, the number of ensemble members, and the approximate spatial resolution.
Table S2. The number of soil layers integrated for our CMIP5 soil moisture metrics (SM-30cm and SM-2m), and the approximate depth of the bottom soil layer.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.
From the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council (Zaylah Pearson-Good):
Each spring and fall, thousands of feathers slice through the brisk San Luis Valley (SLV) sky, alerting resident wildlife, local farmers, and eager birders to the change of season. Ranging from shorebirds to songbirds, a myriad of avian species visit this high-elevation desert as they migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding and wintering grounds. Nurtured by the Valley’s mosaic of wetlands, riparian corridors, and agricultural fields, the SLV is a critical stopover for these determined travelers.
Foundational to the health of any stopover habitat is the presence of water. As local hydrology continues to be threatened by high agricultural demands, persistent drought, mining of the aquifer, and water export proposals, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is unknown. By protecting both ground and surface water reserves, we honor the miraculous winged creatures that bring energy, life, and color to the San Luis Valley.
The Importance of Migratory Stopovers
From distributing nutrients, seeds, and pollen, to balancing local food chains, animal migrations enhance ecosystem health. Spanning hundreds to thousands of miles in distance, these impressive voyages speak to the beauty, intelligence, endurance, and collective determination of species worldwide. Coming at tremendous energetic costs, migrations also highlight the importance of maintaining healthy habitat along migratory corridors.
Jenny Nehring and Cary Aloia, SLV biologists and partners at Wetland Dynamics, explain that many people “overemphasize the importance of wintering and breeding grounds,” when in fact, a successful migration also requires the presence of intact, resource rich habitats along the way (Interview, 2021). Without areas to rest and refuel like the SLV, birds would arrive to their destinations underweight and undernourished. For this reason, birds navigate not by the arbitrary borders and boundaries designed by humans, but by the geographical landmarks, such as rivers and wetlands, that represent feeding and resting opportunities.
Connected by threads of wetland and marsh habitats, the Central Flyway offers safe passage to thousands of birds during their biannual migrations. From the thick boreal forests of Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, this flight path is believed to support the movement of over 400 bird species each year (Bode, 2020). The San Luis Valley, a vast high desert shrubland in Southern Colorado, is a critical stopover for many migratory species. Blessed with interspersed wetlands, it is an especially important stop for Central and Pacific Flyway ducks, water birds, shorebirds, and the iconic Sandhill Crane (Ducks Unlimited).
SLV Significance to Migratory Birds
According to soil scientist and field ornithologist John Rawinski, the SLV’s drastic range in elevation, and therefore climate, creates a variety of distinct habitats for birds. Cradled by the impressive San Juan Mountains to the west and Sangre de Cristo’s to the east, the semiarid San Luis Valley ranges in elevation from 7,600 feet on the valley floor to over 14,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. From the harsh alpine tundra to the tranquil grasslands of the lowlands, this diverse habitat in the SLV yields impressive avian biodiversity. Over 360 species have been recorded in this Valley and surrounding mountains (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Over 250 bird species have been identified at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve alone. Of this count, many are migratory species including the Great Blue Heron, American Avocet, Snowy Plover, Burrowing Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Cedar Waxwing, (GSDNPPC,pgs. 1-8).
The SLV Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment identifies the San Luis Valley as being the “southernmost significant waterbird production area in the Central Flyway and the most important waterfowl production area in Colorado…” (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19). For birds that winter in Mexico and South America, the area is ideal for breeding. In fact, it is one of North America’s most critical breeding grounds for various species of duck and colonial wading birds, specifically the Cinnamon Teal (Ducks Unlimited). Similarly, priority duck species, such as Mallard and Northern Pintail depend on the Valley’s flooded wetlands and densely vegetated habitats for migration, nesting, and wintering (Wetland Dynamics, 2019, pg. 19).
For bigger bird species and waterfowl, the Valley functions as a vital rest-stop to regain stamina for the journey onward. For example, the SLV is an important destination for nearly the entire Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes as they fly along the Central Flyway. Due to their spectacular numbers and continued presence, this iconic wading bird highlights the value of the SLV’s high quality habitat.
Sandhill Cranes in the SLV
Dynamic, loud, and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Greater Sandhill Crane migration has attracted perhaps the most attention out of any bird to visit the Valley. These grey, long-bodied creatures have flocked to the San Luis Valley for ages, inspiring ancient Native American petroglyphs that date back up to 3,000 years (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Spanning nearly 6 feet in length, the “Big Bird” petroglyph located outside of Del Norte speaks to the impact that cranes have always had on SLV residents.
As the cultural landscape of the region changed throughout time, so did the cranes’ relationship to the land. For example, early cranes primarily ate the resources found in wetlands such as mice, frogs, snails, tubers, and invertebrates (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). As European settlement and widespread agriculture took root in the SLV, cranes adapted their diet to become more general. Waste grain from farmlands, especially barley, began to comprise a large portion of their diet. While the cultural and physical environment has changed overtime, humans continue to celebrate this majestic bird. Since 1983, locals and tourists have gathered to honor, experience, and learn from the species at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. The annual celebration attracts thousands of visitors each year to marvel at nearly 20,000 dancing, chortling, and swooping cranes.
Experiencing a Sandhill Crane migration can be a surreal and incredible moment. Cody Wagner, Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC), shares that Sandhill Crane migrations are “one of the last great migrations on the planet,” comparable to the caribou in Canada (Interview, 2021). It is incredibly powerful, and spiritual for some, to witness such a large quantity of charismatic travelers.
Like the SLV, Nebraska’s Platte River (INAC’s location) is a critical stopover for cranes along the Central Flyway, hosting copious amounts of birds each season. Wagner reports that there can be as many as 200,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes on any 5-mile segment of the river at a given time. One thing that Wagner loves about being surrounded by so many cranes is that by watching them, you find they have a lot of relatable qualities. Like humans, cranes dance, play, get loud, and also show both an awkward and elegant side. When out on the river, he describes their calls as being “ancient,” “unique,” and “a thing of beauty.” (Wagner, Interview, 2021).
Local SLV ornithologist and soil scientist John Rawinski shares a similar sentiment with Wagner. Visiting the cranes every chance he gets at the Monte Vista Refuge, he describes the encounter as deeply therapeutic. By “observing the beautiful sounds of the cranes, their majestic flight, and archaic appearance” it sets his day at peace (Interview, 2021). While he acknowledges that one can view the migration of the cranes in various locations on the continent, there is something extraordinary about their presence in the SLV. Snow-capped peaks, a crisp blue sky, and a vast open valley all combine to set an incredible backdrop for the spectacular crane spectacle.
SLV Significance to Cranes
Due to the memory of high-quality resources, nearly the entire population of Rocky Mountain Sandhills bottleneck in the SLV during their migration (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). In early February, the birds follow the Rio Grande River northward from their wintering grounds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Upon reaching the SLV, they scatter themselves throughout barley fields, lakes, wetlands, and the Rio Grande, feeding on high calorie grains and nutrient dense aquatic invertebrates.
While waste grains from the agricultural fields provide the birds with energy-rich carbohydrates, they derive the majority of their nutrients from invertebrates, which are especially important for healthy eggshell production (Wagner, Interview, 2021). For 1-2 month periods, flocks of cranes congregate in the region’s National Wildlife Refuges (Alamosa, Monte Vista, Baca), Blanca Wetlands, and Russell and San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area, where there are high concentrations of viable habitat (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 73).
Travelling up to 300 miles in a single day, Sandhills exert incredible energy during their biannual migrations (INAC). The stopover in the Valley allows the cranes to regain energy and strength to complete the journey to their breeding grounds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (including portions of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah). The Lesser Sandhill Crane, a slightly smaller version of the Greater Sandhill, travels even farther with its northern territory extending into the arctic. In the fall, the Valley will again serve as a rest-stop for the cranes as they venture back to their winter home in New Mexico.
John Rawinski speaks to the importance of the Valley as a safe resting place for the cranes. He describes the aquatic habitats of the San Luis Valley as a“safe haven” for birds to relax and rest (Interview, 2021). By roosting in 6-8 inches of water, Sandhills are protected from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, and foxes. Water serves as an alarm system for the birds, as few predators can enter their roosting habitats without splashing loudly and alerting the birds to danger.
From a conservationist perspective, the current Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes is stable. As omnivores, cranes have a fairly generalist and diverse diet, which speaks to their resilience as they do not depend on one sole food source to be well nourished. As well, cranes can modify their route if they sense insufficient resources along their traditional path. Rerouting demands additional energy, however, which can hurt crane populations and lead to malnourishment and unhealthy body weight (Nehring & Aloia, Interview, 2021). Efficiency is an important component to avian migration, and thus is the significance behind reliable, consistent stopover destinations.
While cranes fortunately exhibit some resilient traits, they are currently vulnerable due to loss of habitat and the unforeseen impacts of climate change. The species, along with other migratory birds, cannot survive without wetlands. Wetlands are currently one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, putting the cranes and countless other species in danger. By recognizing the significance of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover, we are helping to keep habitat along migratory corridors connected. In this way, conserving ecosystems in the Valley is essential for the wellbeing of all birds along the Central Flyway.
The Importance of Water
Receiving less than 8 inches of precipitation each year, the San Luis Valley is one of the driest regions in the state of Colorado. In the past two decades, drought, reduced precipitation, and high rates of ground and surface water withdrawals have threatened some of the Valley’s most precious habitats: wetland and riparian areas.
SLV Wetland Habitats
Whether it is for nesting, breeding, feeding, or resting, all species that migrate through the San Luis Valley depend on the region’s wetlands. Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems that exist in low-lying depressions in the terrain. They are often referred to as the “kidneys” of the earth because they filter out pollutants, excess nutrients, and sediment from surface waters. They are also essential to the recharging of groundwater and protection against flooding and erosion events.
Depending on the type of wetland, the habitat may be wet permanently, semi-permanently, seasonally, or temporarily. Variations in soil type, elevation, location, vegetation and climate create distinct types of wetland habitats, that service wildlife in different ways and at different times in their life history (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 17). For example, the Mallard and Northern Pintail ducks require wetlands with shallow water to forage, but seek refuge in wetlands with tall emergent vegetation during sheltering periods (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20). During nesting, both waterfowl species require distinct habitat, with the Mallards preferring habitats abundant with Baltic rush, and the Pintails choosing less dense vegetation, such as greasewood (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 20).
The SLV supports such a thriving community of migratory species, in part, because of its wide range of seasonal wetlands. In an analysis submitted to the Bureau of Land Management on SLV habitats and bird migration, Animas Biological Studies determined that shallow emergent and playa wetlands are “the most critical habitat type for migratory birds in both spring and fall” (pg. 15). Shallow emergent wetlands host a wide range of migratory species in their shallow pond and marsh like habitats. Characteristic of emergent vegetation like rushes and sedges, these habitats offer excellent feeding, nesting, and resting opportunities for migratory wading birds, waterbirds, and secretive marsh birds (ABS, pg. 3). Due to their semi-permanent to permanent quality, these SLV habitats are believed to be the most densely populated and used habitats by migratory shorebirds and waterbirds (ABS, pg. 3).
Also supporting high biological density and diversity, playa wetlands are some of the Valley’s most unique wetland habitats. Intermittently saturated by either surface or groundwater, these wetlands have high soil alkalinity and salinity that may result in the formation of a white crust during drying cycles. According to John Rawinski, playa wetlands are both the most critical and vulnerable of wetland habitats because they host species that cannot survive in other environments. For example, SLV playas represent the largest nesting area for the Snowy Plover, a threatened North American shorebird that thrives in dry salt flats (Rawinski, Interview, 2021). Additionally, several birds classified as “rare” are known to inhabit these distinctive wetlands, especially at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve: Long-billed Curlew, Short-eared Owl, Black-crowned Night-heron, Foster’s Tern, and the White-faced Ibis (Malone, p. 3) Playa wetlands are also host to a globally endangered plant species, the slender spider flower (Malone, p. 4).
Wetland threats in the SLV
Wetlands are both the Valley’s most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems. While only representing 2% of Colorado’s total area, wetland and riparian habitats support over 80% of wildlife species throughout their lives (Wetland Dynamics, p 36, 2019). Furthermore, wetlands are believed to be the most imperative habitats for birds that are classified as “at-risk” (Rondeau et al., pg. 93). In other words, Colorado’s most threatened species are also most reliant on wetland ecosystems.
Unfortunately, wetland conservation has been historically insufficient. In a report prepared by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the authors write that “Threats to wetland species are high and protection is generally poor” (Rondeau et al., p 128). Cody Wagner with the Audubon confirms this point in saying that many people undervalue these habitats; “Wetlands are held in less esteem by the public and have been historically viewed as a waste of space” (Interview, 2021). As a result, across the country, these habitats have been intentionally drained, burned out, converted into cropland/developments, polluted, or compromised by invasive species.
Due to reduced precipitation, severe droughts, earlier peak runoff, unsustainable agricultural practices, and high demands from water users, wetlands in the SLV have suffered. Wetland Dynamics, a small business committed to the conservation of critical SLV ecosystems, reports that nearly half of the Valley’s total wet acres have been lost since the 1980’s (pg. 80). With water use continuing to exceed supply, conservation of local water resources will be instrumental to restoring and protecting these habitats.
Wetland declines are of great concern for many reasons. Not only does it strain bird migrations, but losses also pose a threat to the surrounding environment. With less available habitat, birds will be forced to congregate in the few viable wetlands that remain. According to a study under the Society for Conservation Biology, wetlands overburdened by high densities of birds can cause “the destruction of wetland vegetation, impose heavy losses in local agricultural crops, increase the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, and decrease water quality” (Post, et al., p. 911). Furthermore, crowded habitat is also detrimental to wildlife, potentially leading to increased competition for resources, poor reproductive success, and reduced longevity.
Defined as the interface between a river or stream and the surrounding terrain, riparian areas are hotspots for migratory species. Densely vegetated with native grasses, willows, sedges, rushes, and cottonwoods, these areas are sanctuaries for resident and seasonal wildlife in the arid SLV. Common bird species to utilize these local ecosystems include the Bullock’s Oriole, Great Horned Owl, Northern Flicker, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, and the American Kestrel (USFWS, 2014). Similar to wetlands, riparian habitats are some of the sparsest habitats in the region. Riparian habitats support about 80% of resident bird species but represent only 3% of the landscape in the Intermountain West (Wetlands Dynamic, p 20).
Intersecting the SLV near Del Norte, the Rio Grande supports imperative riparian habitat for avian species. For example, the San Luis Hills State Wildlife Area protects 4.5 miles of the Rio Grande, which is considered “Critical Habitat” for the federally-endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (COGO, 2018). The surrounding uplands (sagebrush and grasslands) host Sage Thrashers and Mountain Plovers, both of which are suffering a decline in population (GOCO, 2018). The Higel State Wildlife Area also protects several miles of the Rio Grande. This area is known to be critical habitat and breeding ground for the Willow Flycatcher, and the threatened, Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 42).
The Rio Grande is considered a critical migratory corridor as it offers species a continuous stretch of riparian habitat along their path. From the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande River supports an otherwise thirsty landscape along its 1,900-mile path. Feeding seasonal wetland and riparian habitats, the Rio Grande brings life to parched deserts and valleys, allowing for both human and wildlife communities to thrive.
Jenny Nehring describes the Rio Grande as a “green ribbon in a very dry landscape” that directs birds towards resources along their high-energy voyage (Interview, 2021). The Rio Grande offers safe passage to countless migratory species, including the Sandhills, who utilize the river for both navigation and nourishment. Audubon New Mexico reports that roughly 18,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes, 200,000 waterfowl, and thousands of other water and shorebird species utilize New Mexico’s Rio Grande Corridor. Whether it is for wintering, migration, resting, feeding or nesting, the Rio Grande is an irreplaceable resource for migratory birds.
Threats to the Rio Grande
Excessive water use of the Rio Grande has become a growing concern. As early as the start of the 20thcentury, surveyors were already noticing the impact of SLV irrigation on the river. A USGS survey of the San Luis Valley in the early 1900s relayed that “the waters of this stream [Rio Grande river} are greatly over appropriated, even in the flood season” (Siebenthal, pg. 19). Currently, high water demands by agriculturalists, coupled with the drying impacts of climate change, have continued to tax this critical water supply. The upper Rio Grande is projected to decrease in volume by one-third in the coming years (Audubon New Mexico). Furthermore, over 90% of historical wetlands and riparian habitat along Rio Grande Corridor have already been lost in the last 150 years (Bode, 2020).
Wetland Dynamics shares that with the projected impacts of climate change, warmer water temperature and reduced stream flow could decrease the Rio Grande’s “extent of overall flooding across the watershed” (pg. 28). Already, the Rio Grande Basin Implementation plan is anticipating a 30% decrease in the river’s stream flow (Wetland Dynamics, pg. 28). Reduced flow and thus flooding from the Rio Grande would have dramatic consequences for the wetland and riparian ecosystems that require surface water input. Visiting and resident wildlife would greatly suffer as a result of this major habitat loss.
A Changing World for Birds
Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.
The Importance of Birds
A Changing World for Birds
Due to horrific collapses in bird populations across North America, birds depend on intact and healthy habitats perhaps more than ever. Extreme weather events, droughts, mismanaged resources, development, and loss of habitat have all contributed to the shocking losses in bird life. John Rawinski laments that today “we have 3 billion less birds (down 33%) in North America than we had in 1970” (Interview, 2021). Having started birding in the 70’s himself, he has seen this tremendous decline firsthand. He reports seeing fewer and fewer birds each year, and mass die offs, such as those experienced across the Southwest during the 2020 unseasonal summer snowstorm event. As a passionate birder and scientist, Rawinski begs the question: “Who will speak for the birds?” He urges that we need to start taking action now, before it is too late. Without important resting stops like the SLV, and intact migratory corridors such as the Rio Grande, migratory bird species do not stand a chance against climate change.
The Importance of Birds
Besides their striking beauty and relaxing melodies, birds play essential roles in balancing ecosystems and ensuring a healthy environment. During migrations, birds visit a diverse range of landscapes. Travelling thousands of miles, birds pick up and disperse nutrients and seeds. This process contributes to a more biologically diverse and productive ecosystem. Many birds also consume large quantities of insects as they migrate, which serves as a natural pest control for farmers. Lastly, certain aerial migrants, such as bats and hummingbirds, are important pollinators along their respective flyways. This is especially true for flower pollination.
In addition, birds are sensitive to environmental fluctuation, and therefore are considered good indicators of ecosystem health. Scientists have used the presence or lack of birds to learn about the impact of toxic pollutants such as PCBs and heavy metals in the environment. By ensuring healthy landscapes for birds, we reflect a healthy environment for human residents too. In this way, birds play a helpful role in teaching humans about the land in which they are a part. In the San Luis Valley, the continued visitation of large numbers of migratory species indicates that our landscape is blessed with prosperous habitats capable of supporting a wide range of life forms. With water export proposals such as RWR threatening our local water reserves, we cannot take these ecosystems for granted.
Renewable Water Resources (RWR) Proposal Connected by a series of pipelines running through Poncha Pass, Renewable Water Resources (RWR) proposes to remove 22,000 acre-feet of SLV water from the deep aquifer each year. This trans-basin water diversion would transfer local water to growing municipalities in the Front Range at the cost of SLV’s economy, ecology and future. Backed by former deputy chief of staff Sean Tonner and former Governor Bill Owens, RWR is one of many nonlocal investors who have attempted to remove thousands of acres of feet of water from the SLV a year. Opposed by SLV water managers, towns, environmental advocacy groups, and many ranchers/farmers, the impacts of RWR’s proposal would have horrific impacts on the local environment.
Central to the study of ecology is that everything is connected. Hydrology is no different. By removing thousands of acres of water out of the deep aquifer each year, the health of the shallow aquifer, as well as wetlands and rivers that sustain life above it, are put at risk. As SLV ground and surface water reserves are already over-appropriated and declining, the San Luis Valley cannot afford to lose any more water. As a scientist and advocate for the environment, John Rawinski notes that, whenever there is potential for water to leave the San Luis Valley, “the big loser is always wildlife” (Interview, 2021). While humans have the ability to buy and transport water, wildlife and the habitats on which they depend do not have this freedom. The resident and migratory species of this Valley cannot afford to lose their most precious resource at the hands of those who desire to profit from it.
Spanning nearly 120 miles from north to south, the San Luis Valley supports vibrant communities of wildlife. Attracting avian species from all across North America, the SLV stands out as a significant stopover for migratory species. High quality wetlands and riparian areas sustain these winged travelers as they cover thousands of miles during their migrations. These incredible voyages attract nature lovers, balance local ecosystems, and encourage local biodiversity. However, the future of the San Luis Valley as a migratory stopover is jeopardized due to water scarcity. The Valley is faced with an urgent call to conserve water resources. For wildlife and human inhabitants, we must prevent water miners from exporting water, implement more sustainable forms of irrigation and land stewardship, consider water re-use, and unite private and public landowners in habitat conservation. The future of wildlife and humans in the San Luis Valley is depending on a commitment to protect our water.
Animas Biological Studies (ABS). “2015 Migratory Waterbird and Shorebird Surveys to Inform Solar Energy Zone Planning, Avian Impact Minimization, and Species Conservation in the San Luis Valley, Colorado.” 2016.
Audubon New Mexico. “Priority Birds in New Mexico.” National Audubon Society. https://nm.audubon.org/birds/priority-birds
Bode, Christi. The Fragile Flyway: Conserving the Rio Grande Corridor. Vimeo, 4 November 2020, https://vimeo.com/475587503
Ducks Unlimited, “Colorado Conservation Projects.” https://www.ducks.org/colorado/colorado-conservation-projects
Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO). “New State Wildlife Area in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, Thanks to Collaborative Effort on the Upper Rio Grande.” 2018. https://goco.org/news/new-state-wildlife-area-colorado’s-san-luis-valley-thanks-collaborative-effort-upper-rio-grande
Ian Nicolson Audubon Center (INAC) at Rowe Sanctuary, “Sandhill Crane Facts.”National Audubon Society.https://rowe.audubon.org/crane-facts
Malone, Dee. “Ecological Systems of Colorado: Inter-Mountain Basins Playa.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP). November 2017. https://cnhp.colostate.edu/projects/ecological-systems-of- colorado/details/?elementID=365181&wetland=1
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve Colorado (GSDNPPC). “Bird Checklist.” National Park Service, 2006. https://www.nps.gov/grsa/learn/nature/upload/bird-checklist-2006-508.pdf
Nehring, Jenny & Aloia Cary (SLV Biologists and Owners of Wetland Dynamics). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 8 March 2021.
Post, et al. “ The Role of Migratory Waterfowl as Nutrient Vectors in a Managed Wetland.” Conservation Biology, Vol. 12, No. 4, 1998.
Rawinski, John. (SLV soil scientist and ornithologist). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good,12 March 2021.
Rondeau, R., et al. “The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity.” Colorado Natural Heritage Program,ColoradoState University, Fort Collins, Colorado, 2011. Siebenthal, C.E. “Geology and Water Resources of the San Luis Valley, Colorado. United States Geological Survey, Water Supply paper #240, 1910.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS) “Baca National Wildlife Refuge, Wildlife and Habitat.” 2014. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Baca/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFS). “Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado” 2020. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista/wildlife_and_habitat/index.html.
Wagner, Cody. (Conservation Program Manager at the Ian Nicolson Audubon Center). Personal Interview. Conducted by Zaylah Pearson-Good, 2 March 2021.
Wetland Dynamics. “San Luis Valley Wetland and Wildlife Conservation Assessment: Historic and Current distribution of Wetlands and Riparian Areas Recommendations for Future Conservation.” Final Edition 2, 8 May 2019,
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Hannah Grover):
As much of New Mexico faces exceptional drought conditions, the Interstate Stream Commission authorized its chairman to ask the Department of Interior for financial support.
The commission approved delegating that authority to commission chairman during its meeting on Friday.
The chairman will work with State Engineer John D’Antonio to request funding for both long-term and short-term drought relief.
The short-term relief could be something like assistance for farmers, said ISC Director Rolf Schmidt-Peterson…
Low water flow in rivers
The major water basins in the state are experiencing low flows in rivers.
The Upper Colorado River Basin had 89 percent of normal snowpack this year, but the back-to-back years of drought left the soil dry. This led to more of the runoff soaking into the ground rather than flowing downstream, according to the staff report at the start of the meeting. This has left flows in the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers at 50 percent of the historic average during March and April.
Meanwhile, the Gila and San Francisco rivers are flowing at 5 to 21 percent of the historic average for March and April.
The headwater tributaries of the Pecos River were flowing at 39 to 47 percent of average during the time period from October to March, according to information from the New Mexico Drought Taskforce. In the Canadian River Basin, the headwater tributaries were flowing at 18 to 67 percent of average.
During the October to March time period, the Rio Grande streamflow upstream of Albuquerque ranged from 35 to 67 percent of average, according to the drought taskforce report…
The Rio Grande Compact is preventing New Mexico from storing water in reservoirs built after 1929 because of the low levels and the state currently owes water from the Rio Grande to downstream users.
Meanwhile, water users in the Pecos River basin will be relying on augmentation wells this year.
Reservoirs below capacity
As streamflow in much of the state is well below average, the reservoirs have dropped.
Ute Reservoir near Logan is at 65 percent capacity, leaving community boat docks on dry land and needing to be shut down. Other reservoirs in the Canadian River Basin aren’t faring any better. Eagle Nest Reservoir is at 43 percent capacity and Conchas Reservoir is at 23 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, in the northwest portion of the state, Navajo Reservoir is 62 percent full. Because of the low amount of water in Navajo Reservoir, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is not having the spring peak release this year that is usually done to clear out the channel and improve habitat for endangered fish like the Colorado pikeminnow.
As the county enters the second consecutive year of less water in a drying trend stretching back two decades, irrigators across New Mexico are struggling to keep orchards, pastures, farms and gardens alive.
The Upper Río Grande water basin that encompasses Taos County from the southern Colorado border south to Santa Fe, has three-fourths of the median usual snowpack as calculated over the last 30 years. The Río Grande in Colorado from the headwaters to the border is doing better at 110 percent of the median while the Jemez and Pecos basins had 64 and 52 percent of the median snowpack respectively.
The basin outlook and water supply forecast report, released monthly by the Natural Resources Conservation Service from January to May, estimates the amount of surface water that will be available through July – information critical to farmers, river guides and municipal water managers.
This year, the mountain snowpack in the Sangre de Cristos isn’t terrible, but the usual runoff of snowmelt that feeds river and flows into irrigation ditches hasn’t appeared.
Some irrigators think that’s because 2020 was dry enough that now the thirsty soil is sucking up all the water from the melting snow before the flow makes it far.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, produced weekly with data compiled about precipitation, soil and vegetation conditions, noted in early April that ‘due to a very limited monsoon season (in 2020) and sparse fall and winter snows, drought conditions have persisted across New Mexico. Severe to Exceptional conditions continue across the majority of the state.”
Judy Torres, director of the Taos Valley Acequia Association, said she recently went on a tour of the Río Chiquito in Talpa. “The mayordomo (ditch boss) said it usually takes 48 hours to go from the mountain to Río en Medio,” she said. “This time it took 10 days and the water still didn’t make it all the way. The ground is just so dry.”
Toby Martínez with the Jarosa Ditch in Ranchos de Taos said he sees good snowpack in the mountains that feed into the Río Grande del Rancho from which the acequia draws water. The wind over the last few weeks isn’t good, but the low temperatures have kept the snowpack in place, he said. “The mayordomos are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping we will still get flow,” Martínez said…
Since 2017, River Network has worked to increase the number and quality of Stream Management Plans in Colorado. Stream Management Plans, or SMPs, were developed as a result of 2015’s Colorado’s Water Plan, which set goals and measurable objectives to map out the future of water management in the state. One of these objectives is that 80% of locally prioritized streams have an SMP by 2030. River Network is helping watershed coalitions meet this objective by developing guidance on best practices, facilitating a peer learning network, and providing direct support to local coalitions throughout Colorado.
SMPs are data-driven assessments of river health that help communities determine how to protect or enhance environmental and recreational assets in their watershed. SMPs are accomplished by stakeholders convening to evaluate the health of their local river through an assessment of biological, hydrological, geomorphological and other data. This site-specific information is used to assess the flows, water quality, habitat, and other physical conditions that are needed to support collaboratively identified environmental and/or recreational values. To date, there are 26 SMPs that have been completed or are underway. SMPs are as much about people and communities as they are about the functional health of the river. Community and stakeholder buy-in is seen as a critical aspect of a successful SMP.
As the second-largest economic sector and the largest consumer of water in Colorado, agriculture is a key stakeholder in SMPs. In the San Luis Valley, the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project has done an incredible job at engaging local farmers and ranchers in their SMP and related projects, many of whom have been farming and ranching there for generations. In a recent trip River Network staff, Mikhaela Mullins, had the opportunity to hear directly from these ranchers to discuss the deep connection they have with the land and the Rio Grande River.
Local ranchers, Greg Higel, Rick Davie, Thad Elliott, and Kyler Brown, shared that stewardship for the land and water has always been important to them and their families. In recent years they had wanted to make improvements to their ditches, diversion structures, and headgates but lacked the resources to make these needed improvements. When they were approached by the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project about partnering on infrastructure improvement projects, they were eager for the opportunity to work together. “The river needed help, and we needed to make sure we did that right,” says Greg Higel, Centennial Ditch Superintendent. Through these partnerships, a number of ditches and related infrastructure were updated. Over time, the ranchers have been able to reduce the amount of time needed to maintain these structures and have seen water quality improve, wildlife return to their land, an increase in riparian plant diversity, and an increase in water quantity resulting in a longer season of water access. The ranchers spoke about how working with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project and other conservation organizations has been a win-win-win situation for all involved in these multi-beneficial projects.
In the future, River Network will continue to support watershed coalitions as they tackle important river planning and identify how it can provide benefits to farmers and ranchers. River Network looks forward to continuing to shift the conversation between conservation and agricultural stakeholders by expanding the role of agricultural organizations, such as conservation districts, to have more of a leadership role. Learn more about the work that River Network has done in Colorado in this video.
From Colorado Parks & Wildlife via The Monte Vista Journal:
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is draining Home Lake and making plans to improve the local fishery.
“We know this will be a disappointment for some local folks, but this will help us better utilize our water right and improve the fishery,” said Tony Aloia, a water technician for CPW in the San Luis Valley.
The lake is a popular fishing spot, but a lack of water caused a fish die-off in early April. Water was too low in early winter to utilize a floating solar-powered machine that normally can keep sections of the lake free of ice. This winter the lake froze over completely, was covered with snow and all the fish died.
No water will be diverted into the lake this spring and the ground will be allowed to dry — a process that will take all summer. After it dries, CPW will use heavy equipment to remove the fine silt sediment that has accumulated over the years which will help to make the lake deeper. Work to remove the silt will begin after it is dry, probably in October.
CPW staff will also test the sediment to determine if it could be used as a soil supplement for compost and possibly be used at farms and in gardens.
CPW usually stocks the lake with rainbow trout, catfish, bluegill and bass.
CPW will also use this time to rebuild the pump system that is used to bring water to Home Lake.
In the meantime, low water and exposed mudflats are proving to be a boom for birds. Eagles and osprey are scavenging the dead fish. Shore birds, which are migrating through the San Luis Valley now, are feeding along the edges of the water.
“It’s a good time for some bird watching at Home Lake,” Aloia said.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):
The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande [April 15, 2021] showing below average runoff for the second year in a row.
The amount of water in the snowpack (snow water equivalent) measured in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado feeding the river basin is below average and a below average spring runoff is expected for the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Most reservoirs on the Rio Chama, Rio Grande, and Pecos River are holding between 10% and 50% of their capacity heading into the irrigation season. In addition, the amount of moisture in the soil right now is extremely low, compounded by high temperatures, so much of the melting snow may be absorbed or evaporate before it reaches rivers.
“We continue to learn more about the Rio Grande and Pecos and the species that rely on them as we manage through extended drought in the region,” said Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “We are in close coordination with water and species management partners to ensure we make the best decisions for all water users and for the health of the rivers in a tough year like this.”
At the end of March, snow water equivalent was 88% of average for the Rio Chama Basin, 111% of average for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 72% for the Sangre de Cristos, and 65% for the Jemez. Based on these values, the Natural Resources Conservation Service streamflow forecast issued for the month of April predicts that the Rio Chama flow into the El Vado Reservoir will be at 52% of its average, with an inflow of about 116,000 acre-feet of water.
Information from Annual Operating Plan:
Under current Rio Grande Compact storage restrictions triggered by low storage at downstream reservoirs, water can only be stored in El Vado for the Prior and Paramount lands of the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began irrigation on April 1, a month later than usual, with the natural flow of the Rio Grande.
Due to the expected low runoff, lack of water in storage, as well as a minimal supply of water for Reclamation to lease to supplement river flows, there—s a possibility that the Albuquerque reach of the Rio Grande could experience some drying this summer along with sections of the river in the Isleta and San Acacia reaches.
Reclamation is coordinating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish from drying portions of the river and coordinating with partners to use the limited supply of water most effectively.
Rio Grande Project usable storage is currently about 245,000 acre-feet and is expected to peak at about 350,000 acre-feet before declining as irrigation releases start.
The irrigation season is scheduled to begin with releases from Elephant Butte Reservoir in early May and Caballo Reservoir in late May.
The dry riverbed between Elephant Butte and Caballo and below Caballo will take on water quickly. As such, it will be both unpredictable and dangerous and the public is asked to exercise caution around the river channel. Water levels will fluctuate through the rest of the short irrigation season.
On the Pecos River, basin-wide snow water equivalent was 57% of average on March 31, and the NRCS predicted 16,200 acre-feet of inflow to Santa Rosa Reservoir from March to July.
Reclamation is using a more conservative estimate for inflow, and the Carlsbad Irrigation District has only allocated 0.38 feet per acre, one of its lowest allocations ever.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, once was sustained by the waters of the Santa Fe River, which begins in the high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, flows through the city and then onward to the Rio Grande.
But when Western cities grow, they look everywhere for more water, with little regard for the rivers they drain. As the city’s population grew, Santa Fe turned to its groundwater. Later, New Mexico reached across the desert to take water from the Colorado River and deliver it to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other beneficiaries on the Rio Grande.
And yet the Santa Fe River downstream was not reduced to a dry and dusty arroyo. In fact, the riverbed is relatively verdant, supporting cottonwoods, willows and sustaining some irrigation in communities downstream. That moisture helps make Santa Fe a beautiful place in the desert.
That’s because the water that Santa Fe residents use to flush their toilets or pour down the drain ultimately makes its way to the wastewater treatment plant, which returns the treated water to the Santa Fe River. That could soon change.
The city’s water bureaucrats have fastened on the idea of capturing some of that treated effluent, either to get additional “return flow” credits by returning it to the Rio Grande, or by moving to direct potable reuse, a process derided in California as “toilet to tap.”
But both of these proposals will also take water out of the Santa Fe River, affecting downstream irrigators, wildlife and even the cultural identity of the region.
As climate change tightens its grip on the arid West, water managers are focusing on wastewater as a source of “new” water for cities. It’s hard to blame them: Municipalities don’t need new water rights in order to reuse treated effluent.
Communities dump their treated sewage into rivers, and downstream users draw that water, treat it, and send it to residents’ homes. Orange County and Irvine Ranch in California are pioneers in recycling wastewater. The Bureau of Reclamation now administers a fund for water-reuse projects, and the Environmental Protection Agency has made it a national priority.
There’s another strategy that Western cities like Santa Fe are exploiting to make use of their wastewater. Instead of sending all of the treated wastewater back into the potable water supply, Santa Fe plans to send some of its wastewater to the Rio Grande via a $20 million pipeline. This would give the city the right to pump additional water from the Rio Grande. Regardless of how the city proceeds, the Santa Fe River will end up losing some of the water that provides for its existence.
Never forget that Western water law was set up to serve users, not rivers. And under Western states’ laws, cities own their treated sewage, meaning they can use it or sell it downstream as they wish. In fact, wastewater is such a reliable supply that it gets top value at Western water auctions.
Santa Fe’s webpages overflow with the community’s commitment to sustainability. But these values were disregarded in the city’s focus on squeezing more water out of the system for a growing populace.
Wastewater has other values and uses, though. How do we draw attention to them? A report by the National Wildlife Federation, the Pacific Institute and the Meadows Institute warns that reusing water can inadvertently “starve natural systems of needed flows and potentially reduce water available to communities downstream.”
By now, years of battles over Western water should have taught water managers that while people value reliable water supplies, they also value living rivers, small farms, historic communities and recreation. The report urges water managers to consult with the public before making decisions. It also lays out a blueprint for incorporating the value of living rivers, as well as addressing water supply.
Wringing more use from water, even wastewater, is a powerful tool in addressing water scarcity. But just like the dams, pipelines and other tools of the Cadillac Desert era, wastewater ought to be approached with respect for all of its values. The proponents of water reuse need to acknowledge this.
Denise Fort is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to lively conversation about the West. She is professor emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law and has co-authored three reports for the National Academies on water reuse.
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Join this annual community conversation about our water, threats & opportunities! Engage & learn how you can help sustain the agriculture, environment & economy of the San Luis Valley. This virtual event is free & open to the public.
The view from Music Pass in the Sand Creek drainage, where a multi-agency effort is unfolding to restore the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. (Provided by Colorado Parks and Wildlife)
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout has dwindled in its native habitat. A multi-agency effort to restore it still can inspire anger and concern. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
Workers administer the plant-based chemical compound rotenone at Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo range. The chemical kills all fish in the waterway so that Rio Grande cutthroat trout, a native species, had be restored to the habitat. (Provided by Colorado Fish and Wildlife)
A center pivot irrigates a field in the San Luis Valley, where the state is warming farmers that a well shut-down could come much sooner than expected. Credit: Jerd Smith via Water Education Colorado
The West Fork fire complex of 2013 was composed of three fires that burned more than 109,000 acres on mostly public lands managed by the Rio Grande and San Juan National Forests. Photo: Jonathan Coop, Western Colorado University via Colorado State University
The Rio Grande near Albuquerque in 2012. Photo credit: City of Albuquerque CC by 2.0 via The New Mexico Political Report
The Conejos River (right) joins the Rio Grande on the 3,200-acre Cross Arrow Ranch southeast of Alamosa. Photo By: John Fielder via Water Education Colorado
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)
Kyler Brown rides along the Rio Grande River, where headgates divert water into irrigation canals. Coming up with a plan to reduce water use is the easy part, he says. Changing peoples’ behavior is trickier. Photo credit: Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR
The headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Colorado. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Elephant Butte Dam is filled by the Rio Grande and sustains agriculture in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. Sarah Tory
Nearly every mature spruce tree has been killed by spruce beetle in this area of the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado. (Credit: U.S. Forest Service; photo: Brian Howell)
Rio Grande River photo credit Wild Earth Guardians.
Kevin Terry, a project coordinator for Colorado Trout Unlimited, holds up a Rio Grande cutthroat trout at Upper Sand Creek Lake.
Rio Grande River March 2016 via Greg Hobbs.
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande River corridor near Del Norte.
Photo via the Rio Grande Restoration Project
A Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy Andrew Todd.
Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Rio Grande Pyramid
Rio Grande River near South Fork via Division of Water Resources
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As land trusts conserve private land, they also protect water rights. Some of Colorado’s land trusts are going beyond the parcel-by-parcel approach to conservation and are tackling big water challenges in a regional way.
During this March 9 webinar, we’ll learn how land trusts work with water rights in Colorado. Then we’ll focus on two visionary projects: Colorado Open Lands and partners in the San Luis Valley are reimagining conservation easements and putting them to work to slow groundwater decline and encourage aquifer sustainability. And the Palmer Land Conservancy is protecting irrigated farmland east of Pueblo along the Bessemer Ditch with conservation easements and, thanks to a high-level landscape-scale analysis, Palmer is combatting the effects of buy and dry by keeping water on the area’s most productive ag land.
How are land trusts making these projects work? Why are they well-positioned to play such an important role in water management? Is there an opportunity for more land trusts to tackle water management challenges in these big, innovative ways? Join us to explore these questions and come prepared with your own.
Melissa Daruna, Keep It Colorado
Sarah Parmar, Colorado Open Lands
Ed Roberson, Palmer Land Conservancy
Presented in partnership by Water Education Colorado and Keep It Colorado
From the Baca Grande Water & Sanitation District (John Loll) via The Crestone Eagle:
The Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District Board of Directors on February 17, 2021 authorized the District’s Attorney Marcus J. Lock to prepare, but not yet file, litigation against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failure to abide by a Water Service Agreement that supplies water to the Baca Grande Subdivision.
Contract negotiations deadlock
Contract negotiations over extending the current Agreement have been on-going for at least 18 months and are now stalemated. USFWS is refusing to abide by procedures stipulated in the Agreement regarding the cost of water purchased from it and would charge a rate almost ten times more than that charged for augmented water purchases in the San Luis Valley, as determined by Dick Wolfe, former State Engineer.
Relief from payment of excessive water prices is critical for the District going forward, as many components in the aging water delivery system are approaching their replacement dates. The current deadlock in negotiations is also inhibiting the District’s efforts to move forward on the purchase of water rights from USFWS. Purchase of water rights is central to the long-term health of the District and would end, as one Director said, “Throwing money down a bottomless well.”
Savings from excessive rates may help stabilize the District’s fiscal posture that has required two recent rate increases. A Lease To Own arrangement may also prove feasible, but is dependent upon being able to reach agreement on a fair rate to be charged.
The District’s Board of Directors also authorized contact with our political representatives to educate them and seek their assistance in resolving these critical issues. Educating our northern valley communities is called for as well, as they have shown in prior water battles that their determination is one of the greatest sources of advocacy available.
The Baca Grande Water and Sanitation District originally leased water rights from a company called Arizona-Colorado Land & Cattle Company back in 1972. This company owned the Luis Baca Grant No. 4 and the water rights that went with it. The purpose of the lease was “to assure the availability of the water supply necessary” for the District’s operations. In 1997, the District entered into a new Water Service Agreement with Cabeza de Vaca Land & Cattle Company, LLC, which was a successor to the previous company and became the new owner of the Baca Ranch and the leased water rights. The purpose of the new Agreement remained the same, to ensure the District had access to a sufficient supply of water to serve the District’s customers.
This 1997 agreement is still in effect, but now the lessor is USFWS as a result of the federal government’s acquisition of what is now the Baca Grande National Wildlife Refuge in 2004. The Water Service Agreement is perpetual in nature unless terminated by the District. However, the District would prefer to purchase the water rights and own them outright rather than continue to make lease payments to USFWS forever.
In the Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve Act of 2000 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Department of the Interior (which includes USFWS) to sell water rights to the District. This has yet to happen.
Maintaining positive relations with Baca National Wildlife Refuge
It’s important to make a distinction between the local USFWS representatives with whom the District has enjoyed excellent relationships throughout the years. The District very much hopes to continue with the same regard in future endeavors. Rather, the issues seem to occur in regional and national levels.
Opportunities to become involved
Soon the District will be crafting opportunities for community members to become involved in our efforts. Items under consideration include: Campaign Committee? Zoom Public Information Meetings? Postcard Campaign to elected representatives? Forming Alliances with other Local and Valley Groups?
Offer input now
You can offer your suggestions and ideas now by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Houses on the Baca Ranch tend toward environmental principles and eccentric designs. Photo/Allen Best
A Buddhist stupa is located on the Baca Ranch, about two miles from Crestone, with the Sangre de Cristo peaks in the background. Photo/Allen Best
It’s a picture-perfect scene — the snow-dusted Sandia Mountains providing a backdrop to the dormant willow and cottonwood trees lining the Rio Grande.
While the recent snow has provided a psychological salve to the pains of a persistent drought, it won’t go far in easing the exceptional conditions that have taken hold of New Mexico over the past year.
Every square mile of the arid state is dealing with some level of dryness, with more than half locked in the worst category — exceptional drought. And much of the West is no better off, with parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada among the hardest hit.
DROP IN THE BUCKET
The problem is the recent storms were accompanied by frigid temperatures and wind, making for a double whammy of sorts. Forecasters explained that snow tends to be drier when temperatures are that cold, so there’s less water content in the snow. The wind then blows it away, leaving patches of bare ground.
Typically, about 12 inches (30.48 centimeters) of snow make for an inch (2.54 centimeters) of water when it melts, said Kerry Jones, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. With colder air, those ratios climb and nearly triple the amount of snow is needed to produce that same inch of water.
That means less water to recharge the soil and less that will find its way into rivers and reservoirs this spring…
A good example can be found on Sierra Blanca, a mountain peak in southern New Mexico. The snow-water equivalent measured there is less than an inch, or about 10% of normal, even after the storms.
The Rio Chama basin in northern New Mexico has fared better, but even after the storms it lagged at about 86% of normal. Meanwhile, the headwaters of the Pecos River in the Sangre de Cristo range dropped to just 44% of normal…
DEEPER IN THE HOLE
Many places already were dealing with deficits as winter snowpack and spring runoff have become less reliable in recent years. Add to that a contracting monsoon season.
Summer rains were spotty at best across New Mexico, while the mountain city of Flagstaff, Arizona, marked its second consecutive driest monsoon season on record in 2020.
That means whatever water can be squeezed out of the recent snowfall is likely to be soaked up by the dry soil before it can feed any rivers or reservoirs.
The Rio Grande — one of the longest rivers in North America — has been reduced to a trickle as it flows through the town of Bernalillo. Its meager flows follow a year in which municipal, state and federal water managers had to ink sharing agreements to keep it from drying up through the Albuquerque stretch.
Cities across the West have made exponential progress with conservation efforts over the years, while farmers have been installing drip systems, pipelines and high-tech monitors to eliminate evaporation and waste. Still, farmers and ranchers are preparing for what they call harsh realities as long-term forecasts call for more dry, warm weather.
Along the Pecos River, which supplies farms in New Mexico and Texas, irrigation managers in Carlsbad recently set the allotment for this growing season at one-quarter of an acre-foot of water based on snowpack and expected runoff.
According to district records that go back to 1908, never has the allotment been that low. It came close in 1953 with just over one-third of an acre-foot. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons (1.2 million liters) and is enough to serve one to two average households a year.
Phil King, engineering consultant for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District on the lower Rio Grande, said the northern mountain ranges are feeling the effects of La Nina, a weather pattern that results in drier conditions…
HANGING IN THERE
Rough. That’s how ranchers have described current conditions to Megan Boatright, a rangeland ecologist with the State Land Office.
Like ranchers always do, they found a silver lining with the recent storms. While the snow might be too dry to put a dent in the drought, they say at least it has a better chance of soaking in rather than causing runoff and erosion. Boatright said that bit of soil moisture could have a positive effect on cool season grasses sprouting in the spring.
Continued drought has forced many ranchers to sell cattle and reduce their herds as they deal with the cost of supplemental feeding and water tanks and wells going dry.
The State Land Office this week acknowledged the added pressures and low beef prices when it set the 2021 grazing fee. It marks the fourth decrease in as many years.
A recent trio of storms that provided significant moisture to many parts of San Juan County has brought the snowpack up to near normal in the mountains of southwest Colorado for the first time all season.
But it did little to make a dent in the drought that has plagued the area for the last year and a half.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s summary for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins, the snowpack stood at 89% of normal and 84% of average on Feb. 19. That was a significant step up from just 10 days earlier, when those figures were near 60% and falling rapidly.
Sharon Sullivan, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service bureau in Albuquerque, said those figures were buoyed by storms that left 4 to 5 inches of snow in parts of Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield from Feb. 12 through Feb. 16.
But anyone who takes this as a sign that the drought has been chased away would be well advised to curb his or her enthusiasm. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of San Juan County remains locked in exceptional drought, the worst classification. That includes all but the southwest corner of the county, which is characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category, or severe drought, the third-worst category in the five-tier drought system…
The outlook for significant additional moisture is not promising. Sullivan said the long-range forecast calls for above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation in the area.
San Juan County residents may find some small consolation in the fact that conditions are even worse in other parts of the state. According to the drought monitor, 54.2% of the state is characterized as being in exceptional drought — a condition that can lead to the closure of federal lands for fire precautions, the implementation of burn bans by local governments, the encroachment of bears on developed areas, a change in flight patterns by migratory birds and the absence of surface water for agricultural use, leading farmers to rely on wells.
The state’s southeast corner has been hit the hardest, with two counties — Eddy County and Chaves County — entirely in exceptional drought, and four others — De Baca, Curry, Roosevelt and Lea counties — having only small slivers of their territory escaping that designation. Additionally, most of Lincoln and Torrance counties are in exceptional drought.
The 25 reservoirs in the Colorado Springs Utilities network of water storage, still have several years of water stored. Another dry year could take a toll.
Snowpack started slow in December and January. “February 1st we were looking at snowpack averages maybe 75 to 78% of average,” said [Kalsoum] Abbasi. In the two weeks since then multiple snowstorms helped make up for low totals. Numbers in the water basins important to Colorado Springs are now at or just below normal. It’s certainly a relief to see those numbers go up the past couple of weeks.”February is when data tracking for the Colorado snow season officially begins. It is off to a good start, but the numbers have to be maintained with more storms through May.
Streamflow in the Southwestern U.S. is projected to decrease by as much as 36–80% by the end of this century, reports a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey. Decreases of this magnitude would challenge our ability to meet future water demand in this region and could jeopardize compliance with interstate and international water-sharing agreements.
The study projects streamflow for the seven major river basins that comprise the U.S. Southwest, including the Colorado River and Rio Grande basins. Projections were done for three 30-year intervals starting in 2020 using seven different climate models, two greenhouse gas concentration scenarios, and a streamflow model. The maximum projected decreases for the river basins range from 36 to 80%. Some increases are projected as well, mostly during the next 30 years. However, most models suggest that substantial water stresses in the region are likely by about 2060.
Streams in the region provide water for drinking, agriculture, hydroelectric power, recreation, and ecosystems. Water-supply shortages would affect all uses and would affect interstate and international water-sharing agreements. Decreases in streamflow in key areas for interstate and international water sharing agreements show potential declines up to 62%, putting agreement compliance at risk.
The results of this study, reached using an entirely different approach, are consistent with and support those of a recent USGS study that investigates how declining snow cover is playing a key role in decreasing the flow of the Colorado River.
Citation: Miller, O.L., Putman, A.L., Alder, J., Miller, M., Jones, D.K., Wise, D.R., 2021. Changing climate drives future streamflow declines and challenges in meeting water demand across the southwestern United States. Journal of Hydrology X, 11: 100074. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hydroa.2021.100074
For two hours, a cascade of Zoom presenters on the final day of the 39th Annual Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural Conference and Trade Show explained different aspects of the San Luis Valley water situation.
Thursday’s, Feb. 4, updates included historical data and projected forecasts, but water users on the call also heard about pressing deadlines. The 2015 Ground Water Use Rules fully take effect on March 15. Some well owners, for example, may not realize how new regulations will affect them this spring…
The program manager for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco has already been absorbing some of Simpson’s duties since he won the Colorado State Senate District 35 seat. She presented his legislative update while he attended committee meetings in Denver. According to Pacheco, draft legislation called the “30 by 30 Resolution to Save Nature” sets a goal of measuring meaningful improvements in conservation across the country before 2030.
Pacheco said she was “not familiar with the legislation, so I can’t answer many questions. But looking over a short summary, it looks like there may be some potential economic opportunities for producers in the Valley who are looking to participate in conservation efforts.”
Pacheco mentioned retiring wells, planting cover crops and conducting soil projects as examples of these efforts, “just to name a few.”
Before moving on to updates for Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6, Pacheco encouraged participants to contact the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council Director Christine Canaly for legislative details — 719-589-1518 or email@example.com.
In April, Subdistricts 2 and 3 will complete the second year of Annual Replacement Plans (ARPs). “So far,” Pacheco said, “we’ve successfully replaced all stream depletions to all river systems as required under our plans.” Pacheco added that Subdistrict 6 is currently in its first year, and “they have successfully replaced all their depletions to date.”
Subdistricts 3 and 6 operate with sustainability requirements defined in the 2015 Ground Water Use Rules. They are currently within 78% of requirements and look sustainable for a while, although continued drought conditions may threaten the 22% cushion.
Pacheco closed by addressing water users in Subdistricts 2, 3 and 6 who received letters from DWR regarding commercial non-exempt well uses. If they want to become a subdistrict member, they need to contact Pacheco immediately. The customary deadline for receiving subdistrict applications is the first of December for the following year. But the DWR letters mailed in January.
The contract deadline for Subdistricts 4 and 5 is Feb. 15. Although they are no longer soliciting new members, they’re looking for wet water sources on San Luis Creek and Saguache Creeks. They are also seeking Well Injury Payments (WIPs or “forbearance”) on Kerber Creek and Crestone Creek. Partial and full-year Annual Replacement Plans are due. Plans covering March 15 to April 30 are due on March 1, and the annual plan starting in May is due April 15.
The same deadlines apply to Subdistrict 1 water users, according to Program Manager Marisa Fricke. Fricke celebrated 2020, the year with the highest enrollment in subdistrict history. Of the 399 well owners who received letters from DWR, 300 are in the Subdistrict 1 response area. Fricke encouraged owners to reply before making conclusions. One letter recipient called DWR for clarification and resolved the issue right away.
DWR District Engineer Cotten recapped water history from 1938 to present while showing forecasts for hotter, dryer conditions this year. Throughout his update, he referred to the dry years of 2002, 2018 and 2020.
As of Feb. 3, the Snow Water Equivalent for the Upper Rio Grande looks promising at 107%. But runoff forecasts are low. None reach 100% of average as of Feb. 1, and the San Antonio River meandering into New Mexico and back into Colorado ranks lowest among forecasts at 58%.
Referring to letters some well owners received, Cotten reiterated new groundwater rules about to take effect. Wells permitted for domestic drinking and sanitation only will be subject to the Rio Grande rules, which means they will have to cover depletions by joining a subdistrict or presenting an augmentation plan. They can contact DWR for more information.
Closing out the water presentations, SLV Water Conservation District Manager Heather Dutton described opposition to the fifth water export proposal from the San Luis Valley. Previous proposals — San Marcos Pipeline, American Water Development Inc. (AWDI), Stockman’s Water and Sustainable Water Resources – failed. The current pitch from Renewable Water Resources (RWR) does not include water court or permit filings to date, although marketing activities continue.
The RWR website (http://renewablewaterresources.com) provides background and objectives about the proposal. Dutton encouraged people to compare the RWR website with protectsanluisvalleywater.com and the Protect San Luis Valley Water Facebook page to compare data points.
The depth (and salinity) of the water has been disputed since geologist Phil Emery hinted at two billion acre-feet stored in the deposits in 1971. He later explained his miscalculation, but the billion-acre-feet notion persists. Meanwhile, all the Valley water has already been allocated. Two ditches carry water from the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the Wet Mountain Valley between May and July, approximately 1,063 acre-feet a year. The rest heads downstream.
With another abysmal runoff forecast on the Rio Grande, New Mexico is entering a fascinating experiment, playing out in real time, in climate change adaptation.
The latest model runoff forecast, circulated this morning by the folks at NRCS, is for flow of just 59 percent of average where the Rio Grande enters central New Mexico at a place called Otowi. That’s a midpoint forecast, with a big uncertainty range with a couple of months of snow season to go. But even the best case scenario at this point in the model is for below-average flow.
The worst case scenario is awful.
As my UNM colleague Dave Gutzler points out, there’s some really important recognition of the impacts of climate change embedded in these numbers. The snowpack isn’t actually all that bad. But (thanks to many scientists working on this question, but especially Dr. Gutzler and his collaborators here on the Rio Grande) we now understand that we should expect, for a given amount of snow, less water actually ending up in the rivers.
It’s warmer. Plants take up more water, and more evaporates.
What we also see is a sort of policy window opening up. In John Kingdon’s classic work on policy formation (see the indispensable Paul Cairney on this) the political/policy system, with limited capacity to wrestle with all the things before it, ignores lots of stuff until it doesn’t. Attention lurches from thing to thing, and when it lurches in your direction, you’d best be ready. But, importantly, you’ll be much more successful in contributing in that moment if the people doing the lurching already know you’re there. (Dr. Gutzler is a great example of this. He’s been soldiering along for years making himself available to explain this stuff, and doing the research to advance our understanding. Much of my own understanding of climate change came from many hours, during my time as a journalist, sitting in his office in what amounted to a bunch of on-demand graduate seminars.)
On the Rio Grande, one of those lurches is happening, now, in real time.
Consider first the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, on the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. Per Veronica Martinez in the Las Cruces Sun-News:
“Unless conditions improve in the late fall and winter, we can expect 2021 to be a critically low water supply year for the Rio Grande Project, perhaps the worst in the project history,” Phil King, the district’s water resource consultant, said.”
Meanwhile upstream in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the stretch of river where I live, Theresa Davis reports:
“The Office of the State Engineer recommends ‘that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,’ according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.”
New Mexico water agencies are urging farmers to think twice about planting crops in what could be a tight water year. The state faces a big water debt to downstream users, and a multi-year drought is taking its toll.
The Office of the State Engineer recommends “that farmers along the Rio Chama and in the Middle Valley that don’t absolutely need to farm this year, do not farm,” according to a staff report that Interstate Stream Commission Director Rolf Schmidt-Petersen presented to the Commission earlier this month.
Irrigation supply along the river from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Reservoir is governed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. The district cut its 2020 irrigation season a month short, because there wasn’t enough water to go around. A shorter season also helped deliver some river water to Elephant Butte as part of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact obligations.
In January, the district board voted to delay the start of the 2021 season until April 1, a month later than usual.
This year is on track to be a situation of water shortages and storage restrictions unlike any since the 1950s, said Mike Hamman, the district’s chief engineer and CEO and an Interstate Stream Commissioner. The district also anticipates receiving as little as half the usual allotment of San Juan-Chama water.
“The hydrology really started to shift in the early ’90s,” Hamman said. “We’ve got into this cycle of below-average, average, above-average years, and I’ve noticed that our climatic conditions (limit) the available snowpack. That exacerbates things a little bit more now, where we need to have well-above-average snowpacks to address the poor watershed conditions that may have resulted from a poor summer rain period or fall moisture.”
Regional farmers are advised to prepare for severe water shortages by exercising “extreme caution” in planting crops this spring and by using any available water only for the most essential uses…
The current Rio Grande Compact water debt of about 100,000 acre-feet, or 32 billion gallons, restricts how much the state can store in reservoirs.
By the end of January, the state will have released about 3,200 acre-feet, or about 1 billion gallons, of “debit water” from El Vado and Nichols Reservoir near Santa Fe to Elephant Butte.
Last year’s monsoon season from May to September was the driest on record for New Mexico.
The Rio Grande could go completely dry this summer all the way from Angostura Dam north of Bernalillo through Albuquerque, especially if this year brings another lackluster monsoon season…
‘Last page in our playbook’
The fail-safe options New Mexico relied on last year to stretch the Rio Grande water supply won’t be available this year. This summer on the river may look like what water managers and environmental groups worked to stave off during last year’s hot, dry summer months.
The Middle Rio Grande didn’t look good in July 2020. The MRCGD had just a few days of water supply left.
No water could have meant no irrigation for farmers, but also limited river habitat for endangered species, scarce drinking water supply for local communities, and meager flows for river recreation.
Then came word from the other Rio Grande Compact states of Colorado and Texas: New Mexico had permission to boost river flows by releasing a total of 12 billion gallons from El Vado Reservoir.
“That was the last page in our playbook, or pretty darn close to it,” Schmidt-Petersen told the Journal.
The release kept the Rio Grande from drying completely in the Albuquerque stretch and helped extend the irrigation season for central New Mexico farmers.
Colorado River water diverted via the San Juan-Chama Project also added to the trickling native Rio Grande flows.
Last summer’s massive release from El Vado was water that had been stored as assurance that the state’s Rio Grande Compact debt would be paid.
That water is gone. New Mexico still has to “pay back” the 12 billion gallons, plus any obligations accrued this year.
State Engineer John D’Antonio said the drought is shaping up to be as severe as the conditions the state experienced in the 1950s.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s December 2020 emergency drought declaration could provide some financial relief for communities affected by the record-setting dry conditions.
“There could be appropriated up to $750,000 for each eligible and qualified applicant that the governor may designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if there is any,” D’Antonio said.
The state Drought Task Force would determine which organizations or local governments receive the money, which under the emergency declaration could be used for water conservation projects, to offset economic losses caused by the drought, or as a match for federal funding.
New Mexico will endure another double whammy of limited water supply and growing Rio Grande Compact water debt if snowpack levels don’t improve dramatically by early spring.
Statewide snowmelt runoff forecasts published Jan. 1 showed most of New Mexico at less than 80% of normal levels.
Since then, some snowstorms have brought much-needed moisture to the northern half of the state.
But New Mexico needs several months of above-average snow and rain to dig out of a drought before the hot summer months.
Groundwater wells in the lower Rio Grande region of southern New Mexico supply water for municipal and agricultural uses when the river is low.
“That’s not the same in the middle valley for all the farmers there,” Schmidt-Petersen said. “There are limitations on wells that have been in place for long periods of time, so some places can pump and some cannot, and similarly all the way up the Chama.”
Jeff Lukas co-wrote a Colorado River book. It deserves attention, he says, but it’s not the only river of the West!
Jeff Lukas calls the Colorado the “charismatic megafauna of Western rivers.” This riverine equivalent of grizzly bears, bald eagles, and humpback whales gets lots of attention, including national attention.
Some of that attention is deserved. It has the nation’s two largest reservoirs, among the nation’s tallest dams, and many of the most jaw-dropping canyons and eye-riveting national parks in the country. It also has 40 million to 50 million people in Colorado and six other southwestern states, plus Mexico, who depend upon its water, and a history of tensions that have at times verged on the political equivalent of fist-fights.
Just the same, Lukas admits to some crankiness about all the attention lavished on the Colorado River—including his own. It is not the only river in the West. Other rivers, including those in the state of Colorado, have problems and attributes, too. They should, he says, get more time on stage. These other rivers, too, do an awful lot of heavy lifting.
Lukas recently became a water consultant after 11 years at the CU Boulder-based Western Water Assessment, a program that works with water decision-makers across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, along with other research institutions. Before that he was a dendrochronologist, an analyst of the rings found in the bores extracted from trees to understand past growth and hence weather and climates. He calls himself a geographer at heart.
If he has never rafted the Colorado River’s great canyons, Lukas knows the river basin very well. After all, he was the co-lead author on a recently-released 500-page synthesis report—essentially, a book—called “Colorado River Basin Climate and Hydrology: State of the Science.” Brad Udall, a former colleague of Lukas’s at Western Water Assessment, called it the “most comprehensive scientific report ever produced about the Southwest’s iconic river.” [Click here to read the Coyote Gulch post about the report.]
Even before climate change began to intrude into the hydrology of the river, as Udall and other climate scientists have now documented, the Colorado River was tasked to be all that everybody wanted it to be. It’s unlike the Mississippi, dumping vast amounts of water into the Gulf of Mexico. The Colorado is a much smaller river and, since the 1990s, has almost never delivered water to the Sea of Cortez, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. That is part of the river’s drama.
Other river basins have drama, too. The rivers may not be as long. Their canyons may not be quite as absorbing. The challenges, though, aren’t all that different.
The Colorado River Basin “doesn’t have as many unique challenges as we’ve been led to believe,” says Lukas. “It gets too much attention. It leads to a biased view of Western water issues, at least from a national perspective. Most other rivers do not get examined in the same way, either by researchers or the media.”
A case in point is the river book shelf. Every year a new book seems to come out about the Colorado River. The South Platte River? Not so much. There’s Ellen Wohl’s body of work, including “Virtual Rivers” and “Wide Rivers Crossed,” Tershia d’Elgin’s memoir about her father, “The Man Who Thought He Owned Water,” and “Confluence: The story of Greeley Water,” one of several books by former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs. The shelf is short for books about these other rivers.
The South Platte is in many ways Colorado’s most important river. It arises along the Continental Divide in Colorado, near the town of Fairplay, traveling south before circling around for descent through the foothills to the Great Plains. If you’ve flown from Phoenix to Denver, you have hewed to some of this route as the plane glides down toward landing. Continuing north before veering eastward at Greeley, the river is augmented by the Poudre and the Big Thompson, along with Clear Creek, the St. Vrain, and Boulder Creek.
In its journey the South Platte and these tributaries provide water for 4 million of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents and some of its most productive farms. As recently as 2015, some 86% of the water in the South Platte gets used by agriculture – sometimes time and again. By some estimates, water from the Platte gets used seven times before the river meekly enters Nebraska, thoroughly tired.
Like the Colorado River, the Platte has problems aplenty. The Colorado has been tamed, but so has the South Platte. The Colorado becomes nothing—literally—shortly after it enters Mexico. The South Platte becomes basically nothing during its journey through Denver.
Context always matters. “You know the saying that all politics is local,” says Lukas. “All vulnerability is local.”
Even within this one basin, the challenges differ. Consider the consequences of the 2002 drought. Aurora, the strapping suburb on Denver’s eastern side, came uncomfortably close to draining its reservoirs. In response, the city tightened up conservation measures but also created a major water-reuse project called Prairie Waters. It reclaims water released after treatment at the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant after it has flowed for about 20 miles in the river’s banks and adjoining aquifers. Near Fort Lupton, the water gets drawn from an aquifer for pumping 34 miles back to Aurora Reservoir.
Denver Water, a much bigger provider, rode out that drought more easily. There were pinches, which it is still trying to address via both conservation but also expansion of Gross Reservoir. But the point is that context matters—and, oh by the way, it’s not just the Colorado River struggling to meet all the demands imposed on it.
This is from the Jan. 28, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine tracking the energy transition in Colorado and beyond. Subscribe at http://bigpivots.com
Making his case even more granular, Lukas points to the needs and vulnerabilities in just one city, Boulder.
“People who live in Gunbarrel (a community jutting out from the city’s northeast corner) have a different vulnerability relative to their water supply than do people in the central part of Boulder, because they are served by a different set of raw water sources, treatment plants, and pipelines.”
Like the Colorado River, the Platte is a contentious river among the states through which it passes. Actually, there has been contention in nearly every river originating in Colorado.
Consider the Rio Grande, which arises in the San Juan Mountains and flows through the San Luis Valley on its way into New Mexico and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. New Mexico believes that the river never delivers enough water. From south of that border, flows are carefully monitored.
The Arkansas River Basin has also provoked expensive courtroom showdowns with Kansas. Colorado and Kansas don’t even pronounce the name of the river the same, East of Holly, where the river enters the Sunflower State, it becomes the ar-Kansas River. In the Centennial State, it’s universally the Ar-kan-saw River.
Sure, the Arkansas and the South Platte both benefit from imported water from the Colorado River Basin. In the case of the Platte, a little more than 33% of the annual flows comes from the various tunnels and ditches that extract water from the Colorado River headwaters. But just because these rivers get help from the Colorado River does not diminish their own unique challenges.
Again, there’s the question of how can the co-author of a 500-page report about the Colorado River say that this same river gets too much attention, at least compared to other rivers. Lukas acknowledges he sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
It is, he says, a matter of balance.
“It would be valuable to have this same sort of science synthesis done for other basins as well,” he said.
Nathan Coombs, a burly alfalfa farmer in the San Luis Valley, never imagined he would trust an environmentalist, much less partner with one to improve habitat for fish in the region’s rivers and streams. As manager of the Conejos Water Conservancy District, Coombs cares first and foremost about supporting the livelihoods of agricultural water users in the upper Rio Grande Basin. As such, he had figured that more water for fish meant less water for farmers and ranchers.
And that was unthinkable.
But things took a surprising turn about seven years ago when Coombs met Kevin Terry, a fish biologist at Trout Unlimited. Terry, who manages the organization’s efforts in the Rio Grande Basin, approached Coombs with what seemed like an outlandish idea, if only because it had never been suggested before, at least not here: shift the timing of some water deliveries from storage reservoirs to provide enough water for trout to survive the winter, while still meeting the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. Even a small boost in streamflows can be enough to significantly help trout and other fish hang on until the late-spring snowmelt naturally improves their ability to reproduce.
For decades reservoirs in the basin have only released water for agricultural, the basin’s primary water users, during the April-through-October irrigation season. As a result, many streams and ditches run dry or slow to a trickle in the winter.
What kept Coombs, whose district operates the Platoro Reservoir on the Conejos River, from rejecting Terry as just another antagonizing environmentalist or silver-spoon fly-fisherman, as he might have previously, was that Terry didn’t pontificate or try to persuade. Rather, he asked Coombs and other board members and residents what they needed to support their farms and ranches.
Terry then suggested a way to help them: Pay irrigators to re-time reservoir releases, providing them with cash, while giving native and wild fish a leg up.
Over the course of many discussions with Terry and heated debates among district board members, Coombs became convinced that this did not need to be a zero-sum proposition. About two years later, in 2015, he joined Terry in creating the Rio Grande Winter Flow Program. That same year the district board voted unanimously to change a longstanding rule to allow for the re-timing of water released from reservoirs.
The program works like this: Trout Unlimited pays participating water users to shift the release of a portion of their water allocation from the growing season to the winter months. Those landowners then pay a fraction of what they receive from TU to their local water conservancy district to release that amount of water from their storage reservoir, and they can keep the difference.
Dennis Moeller, for instance, owns a 2,000-acre ranch near the town of Antonito that stretches to the Conejos River in the southern San Luis Valley. Some 80 head of cattle roam the ranch in the winter, and another 400 graze on public land in the mountains. Now, the Conejos district releases a portion of Moeller’s allocated water from Platoro Reservoir into his ditch through the winter. Not only does this help the trout upstream of Moeller’s ranch, but he no longer needs to truck in winter water for his cattle. Trout Unlimited pays him $10 per acre-foot. Moeller pays the Conejos district $4.50 per acre-foot and pockets the $5.50 difference. For a total of about 84 acre-feet, he netted $462. Hardly a 401(k) plan, but it’s easy money. He said he still comes out net positive even if he needs to buy extra water to irrigate his meadow grass and alfalfa hay during the growing season.
And the collaboration is paying off across the valley.
“I promise you, I was considered the most anti-environmentalist in the room a few years ago,” said Coombs. “And the attitude of the board in the beginning was ‘no and hell no.’ But we realized that the [winter flow] program could benefit operators in the district, and that fish were a footnote. And we came to recognize that it also helps fisheries and tourism broadly in the region. The genius of this [program] is getting enough people in the room who understand what the common goal is, and enough trust.”
Five storage reservoirs in the basin participate in the program: Platoro, Continental, Terrace, Beaver Creek and Rio Grande. They operate on the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa rivers.
For the voluntary program with an annual budget of about $80,000, Trout Unlimited does not set firm goals, but Terry noted that any additional water in the winter helps fish and their habitat. “The more the better, but we consider the program a success if we get any additional acre-feet of water for instream flows,” he said.
Last year was Colorado’s second-driest year on record, making precious little water available for additional instream flows.
The situation is also made more complicated by the Rio Grande Compact. Under this agreement, formalized in 1938, water users in the valley must make sure that certain amounts of water are delivered across the state border en route to New Mexico and Texas every year.
And the winter flow program, which works cooperatively with the water users, is able to work within the constraints of the compact.
Although Terry said Trout Unlimited’s goal to raise streamflows in the basin is not specific, the Conejos district set a goal of adding at least three cubic feet per second (cfs) per day, a 43 percent increase from its minimum required release of 7 cfs, in the non-irrigation season, amounting to roughly 900 acre-feet total to the program.
Last winter the Conejos far exceeded its goal—releasing an additional 4,345 acre-feet during the winter months. Overall, the winter flow program generated more than 5,000 acre-feet, according to Terry. And although it was not the most productive year, it was a pleasant surprise.
“The message is that we made a small portion of the [Rio Grande] Compact water do more work while it was still in Colorado, by re-timing some of it so that Colorado’s streams benefitted and we still paid the bill,” Terry said.
Estevan Vigil is an aquatic biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife who has been researching fish populations and their habitat in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers. He said the program has helped to restore and improve some trout and insect habitat, although low flows in the last two years especially have made it difficult to survey fish populations. Going forward, he said, climate change and drought will pose major slow-moving threats.
“Doing things like the winter flow program, where we’re keeping flows higher in rivers as often as we can, allows us to try to mitigate the impacts of those changes,” Vigil said.
Anecdotal evidence from fly-fishing outfitters suggests that the winter flows have helped bring more wild brown and other trout into local rivers and streams. Randy Keys, owner of Riffle Water LLC in Antonito, said the program has helped restore certain areas for fishing, drawing more anglers to the area. “It has made a huge difference,” he said. “For example, before the program the area right below the Platoro [Reservoir] was nothing but meadow water, with not a lot of holding places for trout. Now it’s great for fishing.”
As water in this region, and more broadly in the West, becomes increasingly scarce, the winter flow program may become one of many examples of how different water interests with seemingly competing priorities are reassessing their historic perspectives in order to figure out how to squeeze more out of every drop, for everyone.
“It’s one of those things where we’re just changing people’s mindsets,” said Craig Cotten, Division 3 engineer at the Division of Water Resources, which has been working with Trout Unlimited to administer water under the winter flow program. “We don’t have to do everything exactly like we did in the past. We can adjust it a bit to get multiple benefits.”
Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @susan_moran.
This article was supported by a grant from The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
On Monday, the Supreme Court said a river master overseeing the Pecos River compact between the two states correctly decided New Mexico should receive credit for floodwater it stored for Texas after Tropical Storm Odile dropped significant amounts of rainfall into the Pecos River Basin in 2014.
Some of the water had evaporated while in storage by the time Texas was ready to receive it, prompting that state to claim New Mexico failed to meet its obligations. The river master granted New Mexico delivery credits in 2018.
Texas challenged that decision and asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
“The question presented is straightforward: Under the Pecos River compact, does New Mexico receive delivery credit for the evaporated water even though that water was not delivered to Texas? The answer is yes,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in delivering the opinion of the court.
The Pecos River, which begins east of Santa Fe at the base of the Sangre de Cristos and runs through Eastern New Mexico, is used by irrigators and cities in both states and is the subject of a 1949 compact.
Critical to the case, Kavanaugh wrote, was an email between Texas’ Pecos River commissioner, in which he asked his New Mexico counterpart to hold Texas’ portion of the flow until it could be utilized at Red Bluff Reservoir on the Texas side of the border south of Carlsbad.
New Mexico agreed, but reminded Texas the water belonged to that state and would have been released downstream if not for the request.
New Mexico, Kavanaugh wrote, “also added (correctly as it turns out) the [e]vaporative losses … should be borne by Texas.”
“The text … and the record evidence of the States’ correspondence establish that New Mexico is entitled to delivery credit for the water that evaporated while New Mexico was storing the water at Texas’ request,” the justice wrote.
D’Antonio said New Mexico has a credit of about 166,000 acre-feet under the Pecos compact. That includes the 16,000 acre-feet that were in play in Monday’s case.
FromThe Associated Press (Mark Stephenson) via The North State Journal:
Mexico announced Thursday it has reached a deal with the United States to pay the shortfall in its annual contribution of water from border-area rivers by giving the U.S. Mexico’s rights to water held in border dams that normally supply cities and towns downstream.
The agreement announced Thursday allows Mexico to meet the Oct. 24 deadline which, if missed, could have endangered a cross-border water sharing treaty that greatly benefits Mexico. Mexican officials has also worried the water debt could have become an issue in the upcoming U.S. elections.
The deal transfers Mexico’s share of water held in the Amistad and Falcon dams to U.S. ownership. The amount of water transferred is enormous: [105,000 acre-feet].
Mexico said it still had enough water in other dams near the border to satisfy drinking water requirements for 13 border cities including Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros. The United States also agreed to help Mexico if it faces a municipal water shortage.
Mexico says the agreement will leave it with some water in the border dams it can draw on — about a three-month supply — and more water in near-border dams to supply cities and towns, mainly in the state of Tamaulipas.
Under the 1944 treaty, the quantity of water Mexico ships north from the central section of the border is only a fourth of what it receives from the U.S. along the Colorado River to the west, and it has been worried about the possibility of losing that.
Mexico was embarrassed when, over the summer, angry farmers in the border state of Chihuahua has seized a key dam there and refused to allow any more water transfers to the United States, claiming they needed the water for their own crops…
The agreement “also establishes work groups to analyze and develop water management tools to provide for increased reliability and predictability in Rio Grande water deliveries to users in the United States and Mexico,” according to the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees the implementation of the treaty.
The problem arose in part because of a lack of rainfall, but also because Mexico has long pursued a strategy of falling behind in water payments, hoping for a last-minute storm or hurricane that would fill border dams and streams and allow it to recoup shortfalls.
Three agencies will use water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to protect Rio Grande silvery minnow habitat this fall.
On Wednesday, the water authority approved a lease of up to 7,000 acre-feet, or about 2.9 billion gallons, of its San Juan-Chama water to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at a cost not to exceed $700,000.
The San Juan-Chama project uses a series of tunnels and reservoirs to route Colorado River water into the Rio Grande Basin. Several cities, counties, pueblos and irrigation districts rely on the project for drinking water and agriculture.
The Bureau of Reclamation will pay $350,000 for the water. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District contributed $250,000 to the lease and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission contributed $100,000…
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a new biological opinion regarding water management and endangered and threatened species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Yellow-billed cuckoos have nearly been extirpated from the western U.S. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.
Southwestern Willow flycatcher
Water agencies now manage the river to improve fish densities, but are not required to maintain certain river flow targets.
This year’s drought and minimal runoff have left water agencies scrambling to supply water to farmers and fish.
The MRGCD used 10,000 acre-feet from the water authority in June. The irrigation district had “repaid” that water to ABCWUA in late 2019 as a payment for a water loan from the early 2000s. But the district was forced to ask for the water payment back after running out of storage water.
Another release of stored water from El Vado Reservoir in July helped extend the irrigation season by nearly three months…
Under the lease, the water can be released from Abiquiu Reservoir through the end of 2022. Revenue from the lease will help fund the water authority’s program to plan for future water supply and demand.
The water authority has a contract with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for about 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water each year – making it the largest user of the project.
Here’s an in-depth look at the methods and motivation to restore Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in Sand Creek in the Sangre de Cristo from Kevin Simpson writing for The Colorado Sun. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
The multi-agency project to restore the native species has been years in the making. But the optics still can be shocking.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, according to signs posted in the area, had used a chemical called rotenone to kill all the fish in the [Sand Creek] lakes and Sand Creek, which meanders south down the mountain before veering west to eventually disappear, after 13 miles, into the depths of the Great Sand Dunes.
The project is part of a long-planned strategy to restore the native Rio Grande cutthroat trout to waters where its numbers have dwindled toward the edge of extinction.
Increasingly scarce in a dwindling native range and hybridized with other species like non-native cutthroats, which had been stocked alongside it many years ago, the Rio Grande cutthroat eventually will be reintroduced to the mountain lakes and streams where it once thrived…
The Sand Creek drainage was officially listed in a 2013 strategy document.
In 2019, meetings on both the Westcliffe and Alamosa sides of the mountain yielded no opposition — other than concern over the temporary loss of fishing — and little public comment. The project moved ahead, though a year later than originally scheduled due to a late fish spawn…
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW’s Southwest Region, which includes the Sand Creek drainage, notes that the state agency has done similar projects before and will do more of them throughout Colorado.
“We don’t get a great deal of pleasure having to poison a stream, but it is necessary to restore native species,” he said in an email to The Colorado Sun. “This has been done in waters to restore the Rio Grande, greenback and the Colorado River cutthroat; and these projects will continue…
After the 2003 conservation agreement, federal and state authorities started doing reconnaissance in 2004 to determine if the drainage could be restored. Geography that essentially isolated water flow, and therefore fish migration, proved fortuitous.
Bunch points to several reasons why reintroduction of the Rio Grande cutthroat looms important. First, there’s federal policy that favors native species in national parks and preserves. Another has to do with the essential characteristics of a wilderness area. A third is for preservation of the species.
“This is an ideal opportunity to restore 13 miles of habitat for the Rio Grande cutthroat trout,” he said.
The stakeholders who signed the conservation agreement meet annually to discuss the status of its efforts. The key thing, Bunch said, is to prevent the listing of the Rio Grande cutthroat as an endangered species and ensure it has robust habitat…
Although the battle over listing the fish persists, all sides celebrate the ideas that in the case of the Sand Creek drainage, the area could become a refugium for the species, where the fish could naturally multiply and be used as a source for future stocking or restoration if some other habitat experiences problems — say, from wildfire.
The U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its new term next month with a unique “original jurisdiction” water dispute—the likes of which could become more common as the climate changes.
The justices are set to hear Texas v. New Mexico, virtually, on their first day of oral arguments Oct. 5. Original jurisdiction cases go straight to the high court, rather than working their way through lower benches first…
“The tradition has been the justices are not enthusiastic about hearing these cases because they involve such highly technical issues,” said University of Maryland law professor Robert Percival, who tracks environmental issues at the high court…
What’s on deck in Texas v. New Mexico?
Set for argument next month, Texas v. New Mexico involves the 1949 Pecos River Compact, which governs how the two states share water from the Pecos River, which runs more than 900 miles from northern New Mexico to western Texas.
The Supreme Court must decide whether a “river master” in charge of annual calculations gave New Mexico too much credit for water deliveries to Texas during a period of heavy rains and flooding from a major storm in 2014—when New Mexico stored water for its neighbor but ultimately lost some of it to evaporation.
The United States will argue as a friend-of-the-court supporting New Mexico in the case. The Bureau of Reclamation runs the New Mexico reservoir that held the water.
Does the case have broader impacts?
The dispute is an example of increasingly familiar situations in which decades-old water compacts don’t adequately account for population growth, economic shifts, and decreased rainfall and water storage capabilities, K&L Gates attorneys said in a recent analysis.
“As a result, these interstate compacts appear to be sometimes causing more disagreement than resolution,” attorneys Molly K. Barker, Natalie J. Reid, and Alyssa A. Moir wrote.
The Pecos River case will test the justices’ willingness to read water compacts strictly or flexibly, and to account for extreme weather and other changing circumstances, Craig said.
“It’s going to be interesting for seeing how the court tries to interpret these very old compacts in these situations that weren’t part of the bargain that states were initially striking,” she said…
What about future water disputes at the Supreme Court?
Two other interstate water cases are brewing before special masters, and could land on the Supreme Court’s calendar in a future term.
Texas is going up against both New Mexico and Colorado in a dispute over the Rio Grande Compact and how it treats groundwater that’s connected to the river. Mississippi and Tennessee are also fighting about groundwater in a closely watched case involving the states’ rights to a shared aquifer.
The cases are of particular interest as climate change affects water availability, University of Maryland’s Percival said.
“As climate change increases droughts and makes surface water increasingly scarce,” he said, “groundwater is where cities and states are increasingly turning for their water resources.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced that Reclamation will invest $3.3 million in 21 projects for WaterSMART Internal Applied Science Tools that build technical capacity within Reclamation.
“Information gained from these applied science tools will allow Reclamation and our partners to use best-available science for optimal water management under variable hydrologic conditions,” Commissioner Burman said. “The projects announced today will help inform specific water management decisions throughout the West.”
A project will assist New Mexico and reservoirs throughout the West. It will receive $199,764 to implement a known model to simulate regional climate and physical processes to estimate daily, monthly and annual evaporation across Elephant Butte Reservoir. These estimates will be compared to alternative estimates. The results will be used by the Albuquerque Area Office to support operations, to facilitate method comparison and identify future planning, operational and research needs on the topic. It will help with the development of alternative evaporation estimation techniques, production of daily evaporation time series at a reservoir and a broadening of weather prediction modeling capabilities.
Another project in Arizona will receive $200,000 to enhance precipitation and soil monitoring information in the Aravaipa watershed northeast of Tucson. Currently, there are only two weather stations within the watershed. The project includes the installation of two stations to monitor precipitation and soil moisture, which will better inform the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasting models and United States Geological Survey surface water models. The work proposed in this project will help Reclamation and local partners predict flood risk, drought, erosion, and water quality concerns and better plan mitigation of these water management issues.
A third project will receive $120,000 to do predictive modeling to generate maps of invasive quagga and zebra mussel risk. The results will allow Reclamation to dedicate limited resources to high-risk locations and prepare facilities for potential control costs.
Applied Science Tools are part of the WaterSMART Program. Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with states, tribes and local entities as they plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart to learn more.
FromThe Santa Fe New Mexican (Scott Wyland) via The Taos News:
A severe, prolonged drought is reducing the river’s flows to the lowest levels in decades, affecting cities’ drinking water supplies and compelling farmers to adjust how they water their fields.
[Glen] Duggins grows chile peppers, alfalfa and corn on his 400-acre farm in Lemitar, a tiny community north of Socorro. He already faces the prospect of restaurants buying fewer goods from him during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, when their operations have been limited by the state’s public heath orders. Now he’s also seeing higher costs to produce his crops due to pumping.
But he is fortunate, he said, because many farmers in the Middle Río Grande Valley don’t have water pumps and must shut down when the river gets low…
A thin mountain snowpack, recent heat wave and light monsoon have depleted water levels from the Colorado River Basin to the Chama River to the Río Grande. It’s perhaps the most arid year in a two-decade dry period in New Mexico, making climate scientists and water managers wonder whether this is the start of an even drier time that will demand a new, long-term approach to urban planning and water use.
Locally, the prolonged drought can be seen in cottonwoods’ foliage turning yellow six weeks early along a parched stretch of the Santa Fe River and the likelihood of the Buckman Direct Diversion — which pulls Río Grande flows for city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County water users — suspending operations for the first time in its 10-year history.
Everyone must prepare for how a warmer climate will diminish water supplies and put more stress on humans and the ecosystem, said Dave DuBois, a state climatologist at New Mexico State University.
“We need to address climate change and adapt to it,” DuBois said. “Not just in the here and now, but the next 20, 30 years.”
One of the traditional “tragedy narratives” of western water is the idea that thirsty cities are draining our rivers. But in two of the last three years, precisely the opposite has happened here in Albuquerque.
We’ve been limping along on a very bad year on the Rio Grande, with some of the lowest flows through Albuquerque that we’ve seen in a while. And the limping will continue. But with irrigation water in storage just about gone, an agreement is taking shape that will use an unused chunk of Albuquerque’s imported Colorado River water to keep the Rio Grande from drying through Albuquerque in coming months.
This is possible because Albuquerque’s water conservation success has left it with more water rights than it currently needs, including water we import through the San Juan-Chama project, a transbasin diversion that brings Colorado River water through tunnels beneath the Continental Divide. Some of that, now sitting in storage in reservoirs up on the Chama, will be released in coming weeks to maintain flows in the river here in town.
A similar deal in the very dry summer of 2018 also used some of Albuquerque’s unused Colorado River apportionment to keep the Rio Grande wet.
To be clear, this isn’t a charitable contribution on Albuquerque’s part. As I understand the deal, three government agencies with a shared interest in keeping the river wet – the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – are paying the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for the water…
But it’s intriguing to see the traditional narrative turned on its head – water available for the environment because a city has more than it needs.
From The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (Lisa Cyriacks) via The Crestone Eagle:
In the San Luis Valley: water is and will always be a critical issue. While demands on our scarce water supply grow, there are many community-based efforts working to restore a better water balance and plan for our future.
In the case of groundwater, the amount of water withdrawn by legally permitted wells exceeds the amount of water refilling the aquifers.
At a recent symposium hosted by Adams State University’s Salazar Center, local water leaders presented information on key aspects of current water conditions and challenges.
Salazar Center Director, Rio de la Vista, “With this year’s water shortage, the time is now to raise our level of knowledge on the critical water issues here. We aim to engage more people in community-based efforts for a sustainable water future and we need everyone’s help to make that possible!”
Local water users and State officials recognized something needed to be done in response to a severe drought that started about 20 years ago and reached its peak in 2002. They banded together to form local groundwater sub-districts to balance water use and supply. Their goal is to make groundwater use sustainable and protect senior surface water right holders from water shortages due to groundwater pumping.
Despite efforts to meet a court-mandated goal to replenish the shallow aquifer to pre-2000 levels by 2030, significant progress was curtailed by another serious drought beginning in 2018.
Agriculture is the economic engine in the San Luis Valley. None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the valley floor. The valley is one of the world’s largest high-altitude deserts. Water users draw from the valley rivers and streams to irrigate their crops but the peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of water storage in the region, growers rely on groundwater to finish watering their crops.
The latest attempt to export water from the valley to the Front Range is led by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), based in the city of Centennial near Denver. This scheme is undermining local farmers’ efforts to address water shortages and could set a dangerous precedent of water export.
There is zero unappropriated water in the Rio Grande Basin. This means all surface water and groundwater is currently used by existing water users, leaving no water available for transport outside the valley.
RWR aims to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water and pipe it over Poncha Pass to the Front Range. Local water leaders believe that if the pipeline is built, the RWR project will be just the start and lead to further attempts to export water.
The proposal is opposed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache; joined by environmental groups, local businesses, and many farmers and ranchers.
There is widespread opposition in the valley to the RWR export scheme. Locals are concerned that RWR’s plan could turn Saguache County into another Crowley County, an area east of Pueblo that has been devastated economically by the sale of its water. See https://bit.ly/2CORMbB.
The San Luis Valley is a beloved place for many Colorado residents and travelers from across the country and around the world. With the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three extraordinary National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande Natural Area, the Rio Grande National Forest and many other public lands, the valley’s water sustains wildlife for viewing, hunting and fishing, and many forms of recreation. Sandhill crane migration attracts many visitors to the valley. Water export threatens the valley’s economy, which is dependent on agriculture.
Valley water leaders urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts about valley water resources and advocating for the truth about RWR’s export plans and the valley’s water supplies and hydrology.
Please see http://www.rgwcd.org for information about current aquifer levels and the subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.
FromThe Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Brush News-Tribune:
How to survive in hotter, drier world a focus as 93% of state bakes in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought
The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.
They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .
And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.
“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”
How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.
Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.
Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado…
This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.
And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.
Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.
The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down…
“A drier and hotter world”
Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.
He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.
He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.
On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.
“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”
Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said…
Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.
Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas…
Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”
The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow…
An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective…
At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.
Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”
As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”
Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”
The farmers were hanging on that.
“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.
But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”
And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.
“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”
Here’s the release from Reclamation (Mary Carlson):
POJOAQUE, N.M. – The Bureau of Reclamation began construction on August 10, 2020 on a water system that will bring clean drinking water to approximately 10,000 people and ensure a reliable water supply for residents of the Pueblos of Pojoaque, Nambé, San Ildefonso and Tesuque, as well as some residents of Santa Fe County.
“This is an exciting day for Reclamation and all Aamodt Indian Water Rights Settlement parties,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Countless hours of hard work and coordination between the many partners led to this moment, and we can now begin building this water system.”
Construction officially began this week at the water intake features on San Ildefonso Pueblo. Phase one of the project includes water intake structures, a control building, 20 miles of water conveyance pipeline, three water storage tanks and a water treatment plant on San Ildefonso, Pojoaque and Nambe Pueblos.
“The start of the construction of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is a milestone that we at the Pueblo de San Ildefonso have heard and talked about for many years and it is hard to believe that it is finally happening. This is because the Pueblo has been involved in the Aamodt water rights litigation for decades and the regional water system is a core part of that settlement that previous San Ildefonso Governors and Tribal Council members have long discussed, debated, negotiated and fought for because the regional water system will insure clean drinking water for our Pueblo community and others in the Pojoaque Basin,” said Pueblo de San Ildefonso Governor Perry Martinez. “The Pueblo de San Ildefonso, along with leaders from my sister Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque and Tesuque, and our partners at the County of Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico have worked diligently for many years and overcame many hurdles to get to this point and I applaud everyone’s efforts today.”
The water system will divert water from the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. The system will include water treatment facilities, along with storage tanks and transmission and distribution pipelines with the capability to supply up to 4,000 acre-feet per year (about 3.57 million gallons per day) of drinking water.
The Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is part of the Aamodt Settlement Agreement and was authorized by Congress under the Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act of 2010 to settle Indian water rights disputes in the Pojoaque Basin.
“The Pueblo of Nambé is pleased that the construction of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is beginning, marking a significant step toward implementation of the Aamodt water rights settlement. Construction of the Regional Water System represents the cooperative resolution of over more than four decades of litigation,” said Nambe Pueblo Governor Phillip A. Perez. “The Pueblo, together with the Pueblos of Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque, and their partners the County of Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico are finally starting construction of a water system that will provide reliable, clean water to the four Pueblos and the residents of the Pojoaque Basin. On behalf of the Pueblo of Nambé, please join me in celebrating this important occasion.”
“We are excited to finally begin constructing this vitally important project that will soon deliver a firm, reliable, and safe water supply to all the Aamodt settlement parties in the Pojoaque Valley,” said New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio.
“Santa Fe County applauds this significant step forward toward completion of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System, the signature feature of the Aamodt Settlement which will bring a new source of safe and reliable drinking water to the Pojoaque Basin. We look forward to working with all of our partners and the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure sufficient federal funds are authorized to complete the project beyond this stage of limited construction,” said Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller.
The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.
July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.
“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”
The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.
The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.
As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.
Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.
Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.
“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”
Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.
Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.
While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.
Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”
The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.
Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.
Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.
Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.
In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.
And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.
“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”
It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.
Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.
“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”
Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
U.S. Commissioner Jayne Harkins of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, today reiterated that Mexico must take immediate action to deliver Rio Grande water to the United States to comply with the bilateral 1944 Water Treaty. Under the treaty, Rio Grande water is allotted to the United States in quantities calculated based on cycles of five years. The current cycle ends on October 24, 2020. To meet its international obligations, Mexico must deliver an additional 416,829 acre-feet (514.2 million cubic meters [mcm]) to the United States between now and the end of the cycle.
“Mexican government officials have stated there is enough water stored in the Mexican reservoirs to enable Mexico to meet the needs of Chihuahua farmers during this year’s irrigation season while complying with the treaty. They need to increase their water releases to the United States immediately,” said Commissioner Harkins. “Mexico has failed to implement releases promised earlier and continuing to delay increases the risk of Mexico failing to meet its delivery obligation.”
Commissioner Emily Lindley of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “Mexico has not honored its commitments. Texas farmers, irrigators, municipalities, and industries along the Rio Grande rely on water that should be delivered as laid out in the 1944 Treaty. I echo Commissioner Harkins that it is vital Mexico deliver water immediately to the U.S.”
Mexico has only delivered 1,333,171 acre-feet (1,644 mcm) out of the minimum five- year obligation of 1,750,000 acre-feet (2,159 mcm). The remaining volume yet to be delivered exceeds the 350,000 acre-feet (431.7 mcm) minimum average volume the 1944 Water Treaty requires over an entire year, demonstrating that immediate action is required.
“I want to emphasize that farmers and cities in South Texas rely on this water to get them through the summer,” Commissioner Harkins added.
Under the 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico delivers Rio Grande water to the United States while the United States delivers Colorado River water to Mexico. The United States continues to meet its obligations to deliver Colorado River water and expects Mexico to fulfill its Rio Grande obligations to the United States. The International Boundary and Water Commission is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico.
Here at 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide, only vestiges of the winter snowpack remain, scattered white patches that have yet to melt and feed the upper Colorado River, 50 miles away.
That’s normal for mid-June in the Rockies. What’s unusual this year is the speed at which the snow went. And with it went hopes for a drought-free year in the Southwest.
“We had a really warm spring,” said Graham Sexstone, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. “Everything this year has melted really fast.”
The Southwest has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades. The heat and dryness, made worse by climate change, have been so persistent that some researchers say the region is now caught up in a megadrought, like those that scientists who study past climate say occurred here occasionally over the past 1,200 years and lasted 40 years or longer…
Normally, Dr. Sexstone said, measurements of stream flow at gauges in the region would slowly climb to a peak and then drop off gradually as the season progressed.
“This year it seemed like it peaked and then plummeted,” he said.
Becky Bolinger, a drought specialist at Colorado State University and the assistant state climatologist, said the lack of new snow in late spring affected the rate of melting. As snow is exposed to the sun it warms and nears the melting point. If new snow falls, that lowers the temperature, stalling the process. But without any new snow, the melting continues unimpeded…
Early, rapid melting of snowpack has been common recently in the Rio Grande basin, said Shaleene B. Chavarria, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey in New Mexico. Being farther south, it is hotter and more arid than much of the Colorado basin…
It’s not just the basins west of the Continental Divide that have experienced severe drought made worse by warming. A study published in May about the country’s largest river basin, the Upper Missouri, where snowmelt on the eastern side of the divide at Loveland Pass eventually ends up, showed that warming has affected runoff over the last few decades and increased the severity of droughts, including one from 2000 to 2010…
In [the U.S. Drought Monitor’s] latest analysis, the monitoring group reported that the southern half of Colorado, northern and eastern New Mexico, Northern Arizona and nearly all of Utah were in moderate to extreme drought, with varying degrees of water shortages and crop and pasture damage. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its most recent climate forecast, said the drought would likely persist through the summer.
Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was the lead researcher on a study published in April that found that conditions in the Southwest from 2000 to 2018 were comparable to several megadroughts since A.D. 800. It said global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases was a major contributor, turning what would have been a moderate drought into an “emerging megadrought.”
At the time the study was published, Dr. Williams said, there was a possibility that a wet May would “bail 2020 out” and perhaps be the beginning of the end for the drought.
Drought can be complex, a function not only of high temperatures and lack of precipitation but also of factors like humidity, wind and cloud cover. Soil moisture and evaporation of water from the ground surface and from the leaves of vegetation, a process called transpiration, are important.
Dust that settles on snow can have an impact, by absorbing sunlight and warming, which speeds melting. And sublimation, by which a solid (snow) directly becomes a gas (water vapor), bypassing the liquid phase (water), plays a role as well.
But scientists are still learning how these various factors interact, and the relative importance of each. In some cases there is little data to analyze, and much of the research relies on computer models.
There are relatively few direct measurements of soil moisture, for example, even though it can greatly affect runoff as it likely did this year in the Southwest.
Soils were already very dry last fall, Dr. Bolinger said, because the annual late-summer rains in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado largely failed to materialize.
As winter set in, the soil froze, remaining dry while the snow built up on it. Then, once the snow began to melt, the soil had to be replenished first, Dr. Bolinger said.
Dr. Sexstone’s work to better understand snowpack is part of a broader effort within the geological survey to more accurately quantify and forecast runoff, given increasing uncertainty about water supplies in a warming and more drought-prone world.
At Loveland Pass, with a light dusting of snow falling around him, he demonstrated a basic technique used to study snowpack. Pulling a shovel from his backpack, he dug a pit in a patch of snow down to solid ground. In this case the pit was only 3 feet deep, but in midwinter in the mountains they can reach up to 15.
Dr. Sexstone then inserted thermometers at various levels in the side of the pit, and, using a scoop and a scale, took samples of the snow at each level. By weighing each sample he could determine its density and how much water would result when it melted.
Last winter, Dr. Sexstone was digging snow pits as part of development work on a project, the Next Generation Water Observing System, to better measure snowpack and stream flows at sites around the Upper Colorado Basin and, through modeling, improve basin-wide assessments of runoff.
“We’re looking at more intensive monitoring within the basin,” said Suzanne Paschke, who manages the project at the geological survey’s Colorado Water Science Center. Installation of advanced sensors to measure snow and other characteristics like soil moisture is expected to begin next year.
Most current snow measurements come from a network called Snotel, first established in the 1960s. It now includes hundreds of sites around the West.
While the Snotel network provides invaluable data about snow depth and how much water it holds, Dr. Sexstone said, the sites are all below the tree line and the system was developed when much less was known about what affects snowpack.
“When they were developing this network, they wanted to find sites that weren’t influenced by all these other factors like wind,” Dr. Sexstone said. Scientists have since realized that snowpack and runoff are a lot more complicated.
“Now we’re starting to say, OK, how do we account for all this other stuff?” he said.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Kendra Chamberlain):
For the first time in decades, Albuquerque is facing a dry Rio Grande. Despite a nearly-normal snowpack over the winter, that water never made it down into the river this year. Instead, water managers had to release stored water from reservoirs to keep the Rio Grande flowing. Those stores are running out, and some 28 miles of the river south of Albuquerque has already gone dry.
“We’re going to have a flat sandy dry riverbed with a little ribbon of water meandering through the sand very soon,” Fleck said.
It’s not unusual for stretches of the river, especially south of Albuquerque, to go dry in summer months. But as temperatures rise due to climate change, and the region’s climate becomes more arid, it’s likely that we’ll see more and more dry years for the river, even if snowpacks remain at near normal levels.
The Rio Grande is a highly managed river. The water that flows into and is diverted out of it is governed by the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, which dictates how water is managed and distributed between various communities across Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.
In New Mexico, every drop of water that flows through the river is owed to someone. And while the Compact itself is designed to accommodate wetter and drier years, the state has very little wiggle room in how it manages that water in the face of a large, system-scale shift in climate, like we’re beginning to experience now.
Some say now’s the perfect time to rethink water management on the Rio Grande.
“This is not going to work, going forward,” said Jen Pelz, a biologist, attorney and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Communities, as well as the river itself, are going to be in great danger if we keep operating on a year-to-year basis, praying for rain and hoping we’re going to have another 1980. That’s not going to happen under the new climate regime.”
New Mexico is already using more water than it has access to
The Rio Grande Compact is a complex interstate legal agreement between governments and districts that rely on the Rio Grande to supply drinking water and irrigation water to their respective communities. Under the pact, Colorado delivers each year a certain amount of water to New Mexico, and New Mexico, in turn, is required to deliver a certain amount of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir. That water is then distributed to irrigators in New Mexico and Texas south of the reservoir.
The delivery obligations are based on the amount of precipitation received each year. In dry years, New Mexico has lower delivery obligations to the reservoir, and in wet years, the state has higher delivery obligations. Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the Compact was designed with an eye towards the boom and bust water cycle of the Rio Grande.
“The states that are in the Rio Grande Compact have designed and developed whole operating procedures around wide swings in water supply,” Hamman told NM Political Report. “The Compact is scaled to try to encompass that as best as it can, it functions reasonably well since its inception.”
New Mexico is already out of step with its water supply as determined by the Compact. A 2004 study commissioned by the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered a first thorough look at the state’s water budget since the 1930s. The study found that, given average water flows and average water depletions, New Mexico is short 40,000 acre feet of water each year, on average.
“If you add everything up, according to this study, our uses of the river, plus natural uses that we’re responsible for under the Compact accounting, exceed the average supply by 40,000 acre feet per year,” said Norm Gaume, a retired licensed professional water engineer who formerly served as director of the ISC. Gaume commissioned the study in the 1990s, though it was published after his tenure at the ISC.
“Our uses of water, on average, exceed our average supply. Not in the future, because of climate change, but [in 2004],” he said.
The study has never been updated, but there’s some hope that the state’s water use has actually decreased in the interim — even if just slightly — thanks to the water conservation efforts in the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the Rio Grande’s two largest municipal water users.
“They’ve been very, very successful in their water conservation programs, so their per-capita use is going way down,” said Fleck. He added that the acreage of irrigated land in the Middle Rio Grande is also declining, which may translate into some smaller water savings.
Pelz commended water conservation progress, but noted that even in wet years, the water budget shortfall can be seen in some stretches of the river in southern New Mexico
“Last year, when the river was flush with water because it was an above-average water year, the river still went dry in the San Acacia reach, below the San Acacia diversion dam,” Pelz said. “That’s because we’ve over-allocated our system, and we’re not doing anything to protect the right of the river to have any water.”
Responding to climate change
Meanwhile, climate change is shifting how the region experiences precipitation. And that, water managers say, will likely impact New Mexico’s water future and its ability to meet its delivery obligations year to year.
“We’re entering a period now where there’s a shift in temperatures and precipitation as a result of the climatic changes going on. That can definitely be a compounding factor,” Hamman said. “It creates higher demand for existing crops and vegetation, as well as changes the way snowmelt accumulates and runs off. It’s not only affecting the volumes, it’s affecting the timing. That’s a little different than what we have historically experienced.”
Hamman said the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began implementing what he called adaptation strategies since the mid-1990s. Those include minimizing diversions, maximizing storage and optimizing what water is in the river.
“There’s a bunch of different pieces to that puzzle that we’re working on already,” Hamman said.
But a significant amount of the state’s water budget cannot be controlled by water management. Looking back to the 2004 study, Gaume pointed out that nearly half of Rio Grande water depletion is caused by evaporation and other natural mechanisms, not human activity.
“The natural depletions are not very controllable, and they keep going, even if we don’t have much flow going in,” he said.
Climate change and aridification will likely cause these natural depletions to increase, the effects of which will ripple throughout the communities that rely on water from the Rio Grande.
“What happens when temperatures go up? Evaporation goes up even faster — much faster than temperature, it’s not a linear function at all,” Gaume said. “So reservoir evaporation is going to go way up, evaporation from the bosque and the river is going to go up. We’re not sure what’s going to happen to our supply, but what we do know is that our net supplies are going to go down, because evaporation losses are going to go up.”
What kind of future for the Rio Grande do we want?
Water experts agree there are big conversations to be had around what kind of future New Mexico residents want for the Rio Grande. But experts also agree those conversations haven’t happened yet.
“This is a values question. What does the community value?,” Fleck said. “We do not have in the Middle Rio Grande Valley a management framework where we can even have those conversations about what our community values are. What do we want that river to look like?”
Pelz and WildEarth Guardians have a few ideas. Pelz authored a 2017 report that looked at what she called out-of-the-box thinking about water management on the Rio Grande. It proposes exploring whole-basin approaches to managing the river, rather than the piecemeal management structure that currently exists.
“We’ve been advocating for a long time to have the National Academy of Sciences study this idea — have [people] who don’t have an interest in the basin, who are scientists, look at all the different reservoir authorizations, and the Compact, to see if there are better ways we could operate reservoirs that would help make sure farmers got delivered water, also make sure that there’s water in the river when the environment and species need the water, communities could ensure they have water when they need it. That’s more of a long-term solution,” she said. “These three states have three different laws around allocating water. If the whole basin were managed together, it’d probably be a different story.”
Altering the state’s Rio Grande water management would require renegotiating parts of the Rio Grande Compact, which is something that all three states would need to agree to do. At present, there doesn’t seem to be much support for considering renegotiating any parts of the Compact among the parties.
In an email to NM Political Report, Office of the State Engineer spokesperson Kristina Eckhart said New Mexico isn’t interested in opening up negotiations, given the current litigation between the state and Texas over water.
“Texas mediated a 2008 agreement in the Lower Rio Grande that takes water apportioned to New Mexico by the Compact away from New Mexico, and then in 2013 sued New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court claiming Texas is being harmed. Given those actions, New Mexico sees no reason to renegotiate the Compact at this time,” Eckhart said. She added that there’s currently no drought contingency planning occurring, either.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has just begun work on a Rio Grande River Basin study in New Mexico, which will include “projections and water supply and demand within the basin and analysis of how existing water and power infrastructure and operations will perform in the face of changing water realities,” said Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the Bureau.
The Bureau partnered with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the ABCWUA, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, as well as tribes, environmental organizations, educational institutions, and community organizations for that study.
The Bureau is also working with the ISC “on the development of forecasting tools to help better project delivery requirements under the Compact, to improve decision-making related to how much water to store upstream, and how much to send down to Elephant Butte for Compact delivery,” she said.
Could the basin study open up an opportunity for the three states to consider coming back to the negotiating table to deal with climate change in the future?
“Potentially,” Hamman said, adding that there are some other aspects of the Compact that need consideration, too.
“There are some definite reservoir regulation issues that need to be looked at, and maybe a whole different idea of net precipitation, if it’s moving towards more of a monsoon-driven system, then a snow melt system, a lot of those kinds of things need to be looked at,” he said. “Once those options are developed, then I think the interest of the other Compact states would increase.”
In the meantime, New Mexicans will have to make do with a sandy Rio Grande this year.
A science communication tool to bring awareness to recent trends in water availability around the world.
This project is based on and inspired by @ed_hawkins’s awesome #ShowYourStripes global warming awareness-building initiative. Although global water availability has been tracked for a much shorter period of time (only since 2002) compared to temperature, these water availability stripes can help to raise the profile of global water security challenges and complement the #WarmingStripes initiative by bringing attention to the linkages between water availability and climate change.