#NewMexico: Reducing water demand key to Southwest’s future — Steve Harris #conservation #RioGrande #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

Here’s guest column penned by Steve Harris that’s running in The Albuquerque Journal:

Those of us who live and recreate in the arid Southwest have always faced serious water supply challenges; struggling to survive through endlessly recurring droughts, we understand how precious water is to our communities, livelihoods and economy.

Today, our survival anxieties are compounded by ominous climate trends: shorter winters, declining snowpack and diminishing streamflow. There’s little doubt that water conservation and management will assume even greater importance in New Mexico in the years ahead, which is why we need forward-thinking, bipartisan policy solutions.

In 2009, under the sponsorship of then-Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Congress passed the Secure Water Act, creating the West-wide WaterSMART program. Under WaterSMART, local water managers, municipal utilities and irrigation districts became eligible for funding to support an array of local water conservation projects, including water-use efficiency, water reuse and recycling, technological innovation – e.g., desalination and precision irrigation – sharing and marketing of water rights and watershed restoration.

All of these conservation strategies aim to achieve a measure of water security in an insecure world.

It’s gratifying to river conservationists like myself that WaterSMART also recognizes the need to protect healthy river flows and ecosystems. Here in New Mexico, WaterSmart is helping to fund the Rio Chama Flow Project, which in part restructures dam releases to serve the river’s multitude of wildlife and habitats, alongside the traditional imperative of securing water for communities and irrigators.

A Basin Studies program was launched under WaterSMART, and one of the studies funded, the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study, has contributed many new ideas on how to stretch the dwindling water supplies of the Colorado River system, whose millions of users are clearly confronting a future crisis. Among other achievements, the Colorado Basin Study gathered visionary ideas from each water-using sector – both consumptive, like cities, and non-consumptive, like recreation – and a variety of constituents to boost water supplies in Lake Mead, where stored water is approaching all-time lows.

Under WaterSMART, a Rio Grande Basin Study also received funding. Thus, those of us who depend on New Mexico’s great river will have the opportunity to come together and harness our own unique abilities and resources to secure our water future.

While the results of this cooperative approach are still to be fully realized, surely the recognition of our mutual dependence on the river offers hope that collaborative conservation can help the region “tighten its belt” in the face of a manifestly drier future.

It’s important that Congress supports federal initiatives, such as WaterSMART, that bring people together on the local, state and regional levels to solve these looming challenges. It’s encouraging that Congress recently passed – and the president signed into law – the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act, which helps the seven states in the Colorado Basin, including New Mexico, implement plans for conserving water and shoring up supplies.

We must build upon this success and ensure our elected leaders support policy that will sustain this basin for generations to come. Federal funds can be deployed for the benefit of all taxpayers and water users, including by creating ecological resiliency in the face of drought with the kind of stream restoration being done on the Rio Chama.

We all depend on our rivers and water, and the chain of life they support – these are things that we cannot bear to lose.

Working together is our best hope for securing those precious resources for the future.

Centuries-old irrigation system shows how to manage scarce water — @NatGeo

Selection of the 2015 native heirloom maize harvest of the seed library of The Acequia Institute in Viejo San Acacio, CO
Photo by Devon G. Peña

Here’s an in-depth look at acequia culture and administration from Robert Neuwirth writing for National Geographic. Click through to read the whole thing and to take in the illustrations and animations. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s spring again, the time of year—for the 300th time in some instances—when New Mexico communities come together to clean the acequias, irrigation channels that carry snowmelt from the mountains to newly tilled farm fields. Each annual cleaning is one more demonstration that at least here, in these close-knit communities arrayed across arid and rugged rangeland, it’s possible for people to share scarce resources to achieve a common goal—in this case, making sure everyone in the group has enough water.

Acequias are mutually managed, irrigation channels that have been in continuous operation in the arid American Southwest since before the formation of the United States. This communal water system traces its roots to the Spanish conquistadors, who brought their traditions to the territory in the 1600s, and who themselves borrowed it from the Muslims who invaded Spain in the 8th century. Indeed, the word acequia (pronounced ‘ah-seh-key-uh,’ stress on the ‘seh’) is an adaptation of the Arabic as-saqiya, meaning water carrier.

There are close to 700 functioning acequias in New Mexico, according to the state’s Acequia Commission, and a score more in Colorado. Many of these gravity-fed ditches that bring runoff from the mountains to the fields have been operating for three centuries, and some were likely dug long before that.

Most acequias are open channels and many farmers irrigate by flooding their fields, which means that lots of water leaches away or evaporates. Yet studies show that the dirt waterways provide more robust environmental benefits than concrete culverts and metal pipes, says Sam Fernald, professor of watershed management at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and the head of the school’s Water Resources Research Institute.

Seepage—which can range between one-third and one-half of the flow—replenishes groundwater while also fostering a rich wetlands around each ditch, Fernald says. A number of other studies suggest that irrigating with acequias extends the hay-growing season and so boosts the number of cattle that can be grazed. And the largest benefit, though much harder to quantify, is that the acequias create communities that serve as stewards of the environment.

Parciantes—members who own water rights in an acequia community—express this in a slightly different fashion. “Belonging to the land is what’s important,” says Joseph Padilla, a retired teacher who irrigates his family’s land with water diverted from the Gallinas River into the Acequia Madre de los Vigiles just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Fat snowflakes float around us, falling onto his field of newly sown winter wheat. “We don’t control it. The land owns us. We’re just a small part of it.”

The acequias also protect traditional farming techniques. “I still have the same chile seed my ancestors grew and I still grow the same chile variety,” says Don Bustos, master-farmer and long-time mayordomo of the Acequia de Santa Cruz in the hills above Española.

As Bustos and I stroll the fields that once belonged to his great-grandmother, he says: “This acequia does more than distribute water. It holds the community together as a spirit enterprise.”

#Drought news: ~35% of #NewMexico under D0 (Abnormally Dry) conditions, ~19% D1 (Moderate Drought)

New Mexico Drought Monitor May 28, 2019.

From the Carlsbad Current-Argus (Adrian C Hedden):

A decades-long drought across New Mexico appears to be subsiding, with drought conditions remaining in the southeast and northwest regions of the state.

Recent data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows about 64 percent of New Mexico is showing no drought conditions, up from 39 percent three months ago and 0.16 percent last year.

About 35 percent of the state is experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, records show, down from 61 percent three months ago and 99 percent last year.

“Moderate drought” conditions were reported in about 19 percent of the state, with 42 percent reported three months ago and 99 percent reported last year…

Severe, extreme and exceptional drought conditions were not reported anywhere in the state.

NM officials await word from Air Force on #PFAS contamination — New Mexico Political Report

Holloman Lake 2008 via the New Mexico Environment Department

From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

New Mexico officials find themselves stonewalled by the United States military over water contamination from two U.S. Air Force bases in the state.

In early May, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary James Kenney sent a letter to the U.S. Air Force over contamination, this time at Holloman Lake.

Previously, groundwater tests at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis and Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo showed high concentrations of PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Even in small amounts, exposure to these toxic, human-manufactured chemicals increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer and problems like ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFAS include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

In response to the groundwater contamination, New Mexico issued notices of violation against the military in late 2018 and again earlier this year. The state also filed a complaint in federal district court, asking a judge to compel the Air Force to act on, and fund, cleanup at the two bases.

But New Mexico is also a defendant in a separate case. After NMED issued a notice of violation against Cannon, the Air Force sued New Mexico, challenging the agency’s authority to compel PFAS cleanup under its state permit…

Moving up the food chain

PFAS’s move through the groundwater, and they’re persistent, which means they stick around for a long time. They also move up the food chain, accumulating more and more within each species.

Scientists have found PFOS in fish-eating birds, even those in remote marine locations. And in Michigan—another state grappling with PFAS contamination from military bases—scientists found PFOS in the muscle of deer living near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. That state issued a “do not eat” advisory for deer harvested within that area.

Holloman Lake is also considered an important area for birds, including migrating ducks. According to the Audubon Society’s website, the lake is the most important area in the Tularosa Basin for shorebirds like Wilson’s phalarope and snowy plovers.

“The bottom line is that you’ve got a wetland complex that provides wintering and migratory bird habitat to thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl each year that is potentially contaminated by a bioaccumulating toxic chemical, that’s not a good thing,” said Jonathan Hayes, executive director of Audubon New Mexico. “Holloman Lakes is also one of a dozen or so sites in the state that are frequented by snowy plover, a species in drastic decline over much of its range and one that is likely to ingest toxic chemicals as they feed on aquatic invertebrates which make up the bulk of their diet.”

In addition to birdwatching, waterfowl hunting is allowed within certain areas at Holloman Lakes. Although the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game issues hunting permits and sets hunting season rules, the responsibility for closing the area to hunting would lie with Air Force officials.

Meanwhile, Balderas and Kenney are still waiting to hear back from the Air Force.

“We have not received a response to the letter sent by NMED and the Office of the Attorney General on May 9,” said NMED’s public information officer, Maddy Hayden. “We are also unaware of any actions the Air Force has taken in the interim to protect the public from exposure to PFAS at Lake Holloman.”

Medano Creek is currently raging through the #GreatSandDunes — OutThere #Colorado #Runoff @NatlParkService

Medano Creek May 2019 via the National Park Service and YouTube.

From OutThereColorado.com (Breanna Sneeringer):

According to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Medano Creek is already flowing at 160% of the average. Medano Creek’s flow is now forecast to be over 160% of average in depth and duration for 2019. Due to very high snowpack and cold temperatures, this year’s peak flow is also not expected until early June rather than late May.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the Medano Creek while it’s still flowing, there are numerous outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy including surfing, wading, skimboarding, floating, sand castle building, and sand-sculpting.

@COParksWildlife, @NatlParkService cooperating on native trout restoration project in Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Joe Lewandowski):

CPW, National Park Service cooperating on native trout restoration in Great Sand Dunes; meetings schedule to explain project

DRUANGO, Colo. – In the continuing effort to restore native cutthroat trout to state waters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the National Park Service are cooperating on a major project set for late summer in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Two public meetings to explain the project are scheduled: 6 p.m., May 20 at the Rio Grande Water Conservation District office, 8805 Independence Way in Alamosa; and 6 p.m., May 21 at the library in Westcliffe, 209 Main Street.

The ambitious project will help re-establish Rio Grande cutthroat trout in Upper Sand Creek Lake, Lower Sand Creek Lake and in Sand Creek. The area is located high on the west flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range.

“This is a challenging project, but it will provide ideal and protected habitat for these fish,” said John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for CPW’s Southwest Region. “We appreciate that the National Park Service shares CPW’s goals to re-establish native cutthroats in the waters of the San Luis Valley. Trout Unlimited is also working as a partner on this project.”

The project is tentatively scheduled to start the last week of August. To re-establish the native cutthroats, the lakes and creek will be treated with Rotenone, an EPA-approved organic chemical that has been used for decades in Colorado and elsewhere for aquatic management projects. The chemical will kill all the non-native trout. If the treatment is successful, the earliest the area could be restocked with Rio Grande cutthroat would be the fall of 2020.

The Sand Creek area will be closed to public access during the treatment project.

CPW, the National Park Service, the state of New Mexico and Native American tribes have been working to re-establish Rio Grande cutthroats for more than 20 years. Currently, the cutthroat can only be found in about 11 percent of its historic habitat. Mining, water development, intensive land-use and over-fishing have caused the trout’s populations to decline significantly during the last 100 years. Conservation groups have asked the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the fish on its threatened and endangered species list.

“All the agencies involved in the restoration are working diligently to make sure this trout is not listed. This restoration project is just one of many that will be done in the next decade,” Alves said.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is one of three native trout indigenous to Colorado. The Colorado River cutthroat is found on Colorado’s Western Slope, and the Greenback cutthroat is found in drainages of the Front Range. CPW is also working on a variety of projects to restore those populations.

To learn more about Colorado’s native trout, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/Aquatic.aspx.

#Runoff news: #RioGrande streamflow is above average through Albuquerque

From The New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

This time last year, the riverbed of the Rio Grande south of Socorro was sandy, the edges of its channel strewn with desiccated fish. Even through Albuquerque, the state’s largest river was flowing at just about 400 cubic feet per second, exposing long sandbars and running just inches deep.

This year, the Middle Rio Grande is booming, nearly ten times higher than it was last April—and it’s still rising. Running bank-to-bank, the river’s waters are lapping up over low spots along the bank, nourishing trees and grasses, replenishing groundwater and creating much-needed habitat for young fish and other creatures.

This year’s high flows through the Middle Rio Grande come thanks to a mix of natural conditions, like snowpack, and also manipulation of the river’s flows from dams, diversions and interstate water-sharing agreements.

“These late spring storms are really the icing on the cake heading into the spring runoff,” said Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office. “The snowpack is far above average and we expect a few months of really good flows on the Rio Chama and Rio Grande.”

This month, Reclamation released its 2019 operating plan for the Middle Rio Grande and the stretch of the river below Elephant Butte Dam. In southern New Mexico, the federal agency plans to move water from Elephant Butte Reservoir to Caballo Reservoir beginning on May 3. Then, on May 31, they’ll begin sending water from Caballo downstream to irrigators in southern New Mexico and Texas.

Combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo is about 324,000 acre feet as of Thursday, or roughly 14 percent capacity. Last fall, storage in the two reservoirs dropped below three percent.

Levels in those two reservoirs matter not only to downstream water users, but also those upstream along the Rio Grande.

Since last May, New Mexico has had to abide by Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938. When combined storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs drops below 400,000 acre feet, Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any of the upstream reservoirs built after 1929. This includes Heron, El Vado and Heron reservoirs in New Mexico.

Now, water managers expect that New Mexico will be out of Article VII restrictions in mid-May.

Once that happens, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which supplies water to irrigators in the Albuquerque area, can start holding water in upstream reservoirs. They’re expecting to store about 40,000 acre-feet of water before water levels drop again later this year.

And, Reclamation expects that New Mexico will remain out of Article VII until late August or early September.

Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia

‘Umbrella species’

The river’s spring flows will also give a boost to endangered species, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

Biologists are already finding eggs, though spawning will peak later in the spring as the temperature rises.

“The water’s not quite warm enough all day, so it will probably be another three weeks before there’s a huge peak in the number of fish that are spawning,” said Thomas Archdeacon, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. “I’d guess in a year like this, there could be a two-month long spawning period.”

The slow, backwater habitat created by the rising river is good for the fish, allowing eggs and larvae to survive. And what’s good for endangered species is good for the rest of the river’s ecosystem, said Archdeacon.

Later this spring and summer, the river will shift again. Runoff will decline and once the state is out of Article VII, water will be stored in upstream reservoirs instead of passing through the Middle Rio Grande to Elephant Butte. Plus, irrigators will pull more water from the river during the summer months.

And biologists like Archdeacon will keep an eye on what happens to endangered species.

“I like to call it the umbrella species,” Archdeacon said of the silvery minnow. Protecting species like the minnow means protecting all the other species as well, he said, and protecting the cottonwood galley.