Storage got #NM through this season but everyone knows we need a good snow year for a change

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

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

Right now, New Mexico’s largest reservoir is at about three percent capacity, with just 62,573 acre feet of water in storage as of September 20.

Elephant Butte Reservoir’s low levels offer a glimpse of the past, as well as insight into the future. Over the past few decades, southwestern states like New Mexico have on average experienced warmer temperatures, earlier springs and less snowpack in the mountains. And it’s a trend that’s predicted to continue.

“There was no spring runoff this year. We started this year at basically the point we left off at last year,” says Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Elephant Butte Dam, just north of the town of Truth or Consequences. The federal agency runs the Rio Grande Project, which stores water that legally must be delivered downstream to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the state of Texas and Mexico.

Drought has moved around the U.S. Southwest since the late 1990s, and last winter’s dismal snowpack broke records in the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Without runoff this spring, by February reservoir levels around the state—including at Elephant Butte—were as high as they were going to be this year. “We had some help from the monsoons,” Carlson says, “but not as much as we wanted, where we wanted.”

Many spots around New Mexico reveal signs of drought and climate change, whether it’s the puny flows of the Rio Grande, the fire-ravaged forests of the Jemez Mountains or the crispy rangelands of the northeast. But Elephant Butte Reservoir offers perhaps the starkest reminder that keeping up with the changing climate may require questioning long-held ideas of how water is managed and shared, how we think about rivers and reservoirs and even, who we consider our friends or foes.

Farmers ‘dealing with La Nada’

For farmers in southern New Mexico, this year “really stung,” says Gary Esslinger, manager of Elephant Butte Irrigation District, or EBID. This year, he explains, less than 45,000 acre-feet of water flowed via the Rio Grande into Elephant Butte. That’s the lowest recorded inflow since the dam was built in the early 20th century.

“There was virtually no snowpack runoff, and whatever there was didn’t get to Elephant Butte,” he says. “The Middle Rio Grande, that river was drying up way too early.”

Beginning in early April, when the state’s largest river is usually running high with snowmelt, it began to dry south of Socorro and upstream of the reservoir…

Watching the reservoir empty out this year makes farmers feel like they are running out of water, he says. At the same time, they’re uncertain about how long their groundwater supplies will last, even though the district tries to monitor groundwater levels and has hired a full-time groundwater specialist.

“We’re not cratering; it’s not Doomsville yet,” he says. “But we’ve got to find another source.” People can pray for rain and snow, he says, but the challenge is finding a long-term, consistent water source. And western states, including New Mexico, don’t have that.

“Everybody’s thinking, ‘Well, climate change is really happening,’ and I think we need to change the way we’re thinking. We keep looking for improvement in the West,” he says.

With improvement unlikely, Esslinger says he’s started considering more radical solutions—like whether western states could share the cost of a canal that would move water from the East, from someplace like the Mississippi River. “People think I might be crazy, but I think we should start looking at it,” he says. “I don’t think we can continue to keep playing this game of predicting and forecasting: we need to find some water and get it over here to the West.”

Farmers face other challenges, too, including the growing expense of pumping groundwater and an “insurmountable” number of regulations, he says. It’s also hard to find workers to hand-pick crops like chile and onions, thanks to changes in immigration policy.

@CWCB_DNR SWSI update in the works

The Rio Grande flowing through the Colorado town of Del Norte. Photo credit: USBR

From The Valley Courier (Judy Lopez):

In 2018, SWSI is being updated using the latest information and will it serve as the technical mainframe for the revisions of the Colorado Water Plan and the Basin Implementation Plans. SWSI 18 will provide parameters that will help plan revision teams consider a variety of scenarios based on climate variance, existing supply and demands, and population growth. This will help these teams make the revised plans, maps that truly guide Colorado and the basin’s water future.

Want to know more? Visit the Colorado Water Conservation boards website at or join in the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable meetings which are held the second Tuesday of each month at the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, 623 Fourth Street in Alamosa. Meetings begin at 2 pm. Also visit

San Luis Valley: “Tale of Two Rivers” recap

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Hoping to avoid the wholesale shut down of agricultural wells in the San Luis Valley that occurred in the South Platte, water users here developed their own plan of action, Rio Grande Water Conservation District General Manager Cleave Simpson explained during “A Tale of Two Rivers” Monday night at Adams State.

Simpson spoke about the Rio Grande Basin’s groundwater journey while CSU Director of the Colorado Water Institute Reagan Waskom spoke about the South Platte Basin.

Attendees at the September 17 talk asked Simpson if local efforts were going to be enough, especially in light of drought and generally warmer conditions in recent years.

He responded that if voluntary efforts to reduce water consumption are not successful, the state will force the issue, because local water users — at least those in the basin’s first water management sub-district — are mandated to bring the aquifer levels back up to a certain level in a specified amount of time.

That clock is ticking, he said.

In its eighth year of operation Sub-District #1, sponsored by the water district Simpson manages, is required by legislation to bring the Rio Grande Basin’s aquifer up to a more sustainable level in 20 years, which means it has 12 years remaining on that mandate, Simpson explained.

The sub-district concept was born as a way to self govern water use in the basin, he said. The various sub-districts throughout the basin focus on “communities of interest,” Simpson said.

The first sub-district, which will soon have several sister sub-districts throughout the basin, covers about 3,000 irrigation wells involving about 300 landowners. They have used many methods to reduce their consumption, repair their wells’ injuries to surface water users and to meet their aquifer sustainability mandate, Simpson said.

He said the first sub-district has invested $8 million in fallowing projects and $6 million in acquiring and drying up parcels irrigated by groundwater…

He said, however, that speaking personally and not as the district manager, he believed a lot more acreage would need to be taken out. He said of the approximately 500,000 irrigated acres currently in the San Luis Valley, he believed 100,000-150,000 irrigated acres could no longer be supported with the dwindling water supply and aquifer sustainability mandate, unless farmers found a crop that used half the consumptive volume of water they are now using.

“There’s social consequences for taking 100,000 acres out of production in the Valley,” Simpson said.

Waskom added that the South Platte Basin is different in that it is not as agriculturally dependent as the Rio Grande Basin. While the Valley’s economy is still largely dependent on agriculture, the South Platte has more diversity such as oil/gas, growth and commercial enterprises. Losing cropland in the South Platte is not as crucial as it is in the San Luis Valley, he said.

“It’s different here. You need to think about that as a community, what your future looks like,” he said…

Simpson said that while groundwater users in the Rio Grande Basin must replace their injurious depletions to surface rights, just as in the South Platte, one major difference in the requirements between the two basins is the obligation in this basin to “create and maintain a sustainable aquifer … unique requirements … Nowhere else in the state are well owners held to that standard.”

That requirement must be met 20 years from the formation of the first sub-district, which is now eight years into that timeline, Simpson said. He added that while there is flexibility on how to get there, “where you have to get to is clearly well defined.”

He pointed to the downward trends in stream flows, specifically on the Rio Grande at the Del Norte gauge where for the first time since flows have been measured at that gauge (1890 forward), the river has gone 10 years without reaching the 700,000 acre-foot annual flow and about 20 years without hitting 800,000 acre feet. The annual flow this year is about 285,000 acre-feet.

Simpson added, “It’s probably not fair to call it a drought anymore. It’s climate. It’s just where we are, natural or man made, it’s just where we are at.”

Simpson also referred to the unconfined aquifer study the district has undertaken since 1976, which is generally the same area covered by the first sub-district. The aquifer remained fairly steady prior to 2002 and in that drought year alone lost 400,000 acre feet volume of water in that study area, Simpson said.

The first sub-district through its varied efforts of fallowing and conservation recovered about 350,000 acre feet, Simpson added. Experiencing three or four years of close to average flows helped. This year has presented more of a challenge, Simpson added, and he expected a decline in the aquifer storage area of about 200,000 acre feet.

San Luis Valley Groundwater

Western Rivers Conservancy Land Donation Establishes San Luis Valley Conservation Area in #Colorado — USFWS

The landscape photo is of the New 13 acre easement, photo by Simi Batra/USFWS.

Here’s the release USFWS:

[Friday, September 14, 2018], the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted a 12.82-acre conservation easement donation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley from Western Rivers Conservancy. With the donation, the San Luis Valley Conservation Area becomes the 567th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, an unparalleled network of public lands and waters dedicated to the conservation of native wildlife and their habitats.

Western Rivers Conservancy has worked in partnership with the Service, state and local governments, as well as other conservation organizations to connect people and communities to this diverse ecosystem. Their donation of a conservation easement is yet another step in local efforts to conserve important fish and wildlife habitat and increase opportunities for public access. It will ultimately support increased biodiversity and recreational opportunities such as birding and hunting on nearby public and private lands.

“We are very pleased to partner with the Service to help create the San Luis Valley Conservation Area,” said Dieter Erdmann, Western River Conservancy Interior West Program Director. “The Rio Grande and its tributaries are the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley and we are committed to supporting voluntary conservation efforts that will benefit fish, wildlife and people alike.”

“By working collaboratively with our conservation partners and local communities to establish the San Luis Valley Conservation Area, we are helping ensure that the San Luis Valley continues to support some of the state’s most important fish and wildlife resources, as well as the people who live here, for generations to come,” said the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

In 2015, the Service approved the San Luis Valley Conservation Area Land Protection Plan, which clarified and guided the Service’s intent to continue working with partners and private landowners to establish voluntary conservation easements in this priority landscape. Easements allow landowners to retain their property rights and continue traditional activities such as livestock grazing and haying within the easement, while prohibiting commercial development. Under the plan, the Service could protect up to 530,000 acres with conservation easements donated or purchased from willing sellers.

The Conservation Area plan is designed to protect wildlife and wetland habitat in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Its limit is defined by the headwaters of the legendary Rio Grande, which begins its nearly 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains that surround the San Luis Valley. Runoff from mountain snowpack creates wetlands and riparian areas in the midst of what otherwise is a high-mountain desert, providing important habitat for plants and migratory birds such as greater sandhill cranes, waterfowl and other sensitive or imperiled species. As the Conservation Area expands over time, the Service intends to protect wildlife habitat and maintain wildlife corridors between protected blocks of habitat on public and private conservation lands.

The new Conservation Area is the fifth unit of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the ninth national wildlife refuge in the state of Colorado.

The Service’s Refuge System now encompasses 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetlands management districts across 150 million acres. Refuges are critical to the local communities that surround them, serving as centers for recreation, economic growth, and landscape health and resiliency. Each state and U.S. territory has at least one national wildlife refuge, and there is a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

Learn more about the National Wildlife Refuge System or the San Luis Valley Conservation Area.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit Connect with our Facebook page at, follow our tweets at, watch our YouTube Channel at and download photos from our Flickr page at

Jayne Harkins named to lead the International Boundary and Water Commission

Map of the Rio Grande watershed. Graphic credit: WikiMedia

From The Las Vegas Review-Journal (Henry Brean):

The White House on Friday announced plans to appoint Jayne Harkins, executive director of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada, to head the U.S. side of the cross-border treaty organization.

Harkins said she was recommended for the post by Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.; Dean Heller, R-Nev.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

The International Boundary and Water Commission regulates such thorny issues as the location of the border and the allocation of water in the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. The commission also oversees flood control, sanitation and other water quality issues impacting the two nations.

“It’s important. All the work is very important,” Harkins said. “I think I have the background to help with those disputes.”

Harkins has held the top job at the state agency responsible for managing Nevada’s water and power resources from the Colorado River since 2011. During that time, she participated in international talks that led to a series of agreements over Mexico’s use and conservation of water from the Colorado.

Before that, the registered professional engineer spent 27 years with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, where she eventually served as deputy director of that agency’s Lower Colorado River Region.

Harkins said her appointment is expected to become official in a few weeks, after which she will report for work at the boundary and water commission’s U.S. headquarters in El Paso, Texas. The Mexican section of the commission is located in the neighboring city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

@USBR: #RioGrande Basin Reservoirs Provide Water Through Dry Summer #drought #aridification

New Mexico water projects map via Reclamation

Here’s the release from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):

Several Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs in New Mexico will end this summer with minimal pools of water, after having done exactly what they are intended to do – provide water stored during wet times for use in dry periods. Through most of this summer, the reservoirs have released water for farmers, municipalities, industrial use, and recreation.

Due to water stored in previous years, farmers along the Rio Grande received irrigation water, municipalities received water and hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed recreational benefits in New Mexico in spite of a hot, dry summer that followed one of the driest winters on record.

Heron Reservoir in northern New Mexico stores water as part of the San Juan-Chama Project for various municipal and agricultural uses including the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority and Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. Heron is currently holding approximately 101,000 acre-feet of water, which is 25 percent of its capacity. That quantity will decrease steadily through the end of the year as San Juan-Chama Project contractors use their supplies or move them downstream.

El Vado Reservoir reached a low point of about 5 percent of capacity at 9,344 acre-feet earlier this summer before the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District ran out of storage in the reservoir. El Vado is currently holding only San Juan-Chama Project water, and should remain relatively steady until next spring.

Elephant Butte Reservoir is expected to reach a low of about 49,000 acre-feet at the end of September when irrigation releases for the Rio Grande Project and deliveries to the Republic of Mexico conclude. That content would be the lowest in Elephant Butte since 1971. This would be less than 3 percent of the reservoir’s capacity. The reservoir is then expected to start gaining storage through the winter. Caballo Reservoir is expected to end the season with about 25,600 acre-feet of water, which is 11 percent of its capacity.

Water levels at these reservoirs are on track with Reclamation forecasts presented this spring, when Reclamation shared expectations for a year with one of the lowest snowpacks and spring runoffs on record.

“It’s important that we recognize that these reservoirs stored water in 2017 and earlier years, when we had better supplies, and released it in 2018 when there was very little natural flow in the Rio Grande,” said Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “We know that our reservoirs are low as we head into September, but they have provided water throughout the summer, and there are still great recreation opportunities such as fishing, boating and camping to be had at all of our reservoirs. Rafting flows on the Rio Chama are also expected to remain good into mid-September.”

#Drought news: “You get a bad snowpack, but also because the temperatures are so warm, (there is) increased evaporation or increased use by plants” — @JFleck

From The Albuquerque Journal (Megan Bennett):

The USGS’ stream gauge at Embudo is the oldest in the country, measuring streamflow in that area between Española and Taos since 1889. August is typically the driest time of the year for the river.

“The impacts are real,” said Fleck of the ongoing drought conditions. “The people downstream who need to use water have less. All of us – Santa Fe, Albuquerque, farmers across the Rio Grande (and) the ecosystem; the plants, the fish, the birds.”

The low flows are a direct result of poor snowpack in the San Juan Mountains upriver in southern Colorado, said both Fleck and Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist in Albuquerque’s National Weather Service office and part of the New Mexico Drought Monitoring Working Group.

According to Fontenot, drought conditions in that area this season mirror those experienced in 2002, when there was also D4 – or “exceptional” – drought conditions.

Fontenot added that the Rio Grande, especially in its northern section that includes Embudo, is a snowmelt-driven river.

“So when you have a very poor winter like this one, you’ll see these low flows,” with the possibility of just “spikes and bumps” with heavy rainfall, said Fontenot. Despite the big monsoon storms in Santa Fe, Fleck said there hasn’t been enough heavy rain up to the north to make a substantial impact.

Heavy farming in the San Luis Valley at the Rio Grande’s head also means less water in the river, noted Fleck, who added that the low discharge is also an effect of climate change.

“You get a bad snowpack, but also because the temperatures are so warm, (there is) increased evaporation or increased use by plants,” he said. “For a given amount of snow, we get less water in our rivers. This is climate change.”

Fontenot, though, says the main driver of 2018’s dryness is this past winter’s La Niña, the ocean-atmosphere phenomenon which he noted typically results in warm and dryer winters in New Mexico, rather than climate change.

West Drought Monitor August 28, 2018.

From ( (Cory Reppenhagen):

ngram Falls near Telluride has come to a stop.

“Depending on when you’re up there, there’s either no flow … or just drips,” Telluride resident Amy Levek said…

Last weekend was the famous Mushroom Festival in Telluride. Damp woods, from monsoon rains, are a normal breeding ground for shrooms. Not this year, though.

“Two weeks ago, I went out and found a few, and that is very early for mushrooms, and then last weekend when I went out there was nothing, absolutely nothing,” Levek said…

To find the last time southwest Colorado had drought this exceptional, you must go all the way back 15 years to August 2003…

The San Miguel, the San Juan, and the Las Animas rivers have all hit record low steam flows at some point this summer, just to name a few. Many other creeks and rivers are running below 10 percent of normal this August…

Municipalities are starting to implement water restrictions. The city of Aspen announced they are going to stage 2 watering restrictions for the first time in their history.

Stagecoach Dam and Reservoir via the Applegate Group

From The Craig Daily Press:

The Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District is releasing water from the Stagecoach Reservoir to supply the needs of Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association’s Craig Station, which started on Thursday, Aug 16.

The released water will be protected by the Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 6 engineer Erin Light and her staff according to the Water Conservancy’s release. They will make sure the 80-mile section of the Yampa River Between Stagecoach Reservoir and Craig Station’s intake remains in the river and not diverted by other water users.

The Colorado Water Trust will continue releasing water to support the health of the Yampa River.

Upper Yampa Water manager Kevin McBride said, “Upper Yampa is pleased to release water to our customers, Tri-State and the Colorado Water Trust during this drought. These releases, for an industrial and environmental purpose individually, will combine to have a great beneficial effect for all of us in the valley.”

During droughts, Senior manager of communications and public affairs at Tri-State Lee Boughey said, it is critical to have water storage in the Yampa River basin. Working with Upper Yampa and the Colorado Water Trust will ensure power generation continues while improving the health of Yampa.

The release from Stagecoach Reservoir is the Upper Yampa’s largest release so far and includes up to 70 cubic feet per second of water from Tri-State’s leased water pool. The release will be reevaluated in the next week and could be reduced depending on the river conditions and forecasts.

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

Pagosa Area Water and Sanita- tion District (PAWSD) custom- ers remain in voluntary drought restrictions, but mandatory restrictions may be just around the corner.

According to a report made by PAWSD District Manager Justin Ramsey, as of Monday, the current and total cumulative available lake water for treatment and delivery sits at 72.5 percent.

If that total drops to 70 percent, stage 1 mandatory drought restric- tions will be put in place for all PAWSD customers.

Those restrictions would limit outdoor irrigation to the hours be- tween 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. and trigger a drought surcharge of $7.68 per equivalent unit.

Ramsey notes in his report that PAWSD may be entering into stage 1 mandatory drought restrictions at the end of this week or possibly next week…

Within his report, Ramsey also describes that Lake Hatcher is 57 inches from full, while Lake Stevens is 121 inches from full.

“They dropped a little bit, kind of expected,” Ramsey said.

Additionally, Ramsey’s report notes that Lake Pagosa is 23 inches from full, Lake Forest is at 10 inches from full and Village Lake sits at 9 inches from full.

PAWSD’s water use this past week was down quite a bit, Ramsey noted.

“This is the first time that we’ve used less water in the same week than we did in 2017,” Ramsey said.