Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
Once an acequia commissioner and now a U.S. congresswoman, Leger Fernández knows how hard it is to tell farmers they won’t get all the water they need — or maybe none at all.
She talks about the annual limpia, or cleaning of acequias in preparation for planting season.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment but now what we’re witnessing is we can’t do it all the time anymore because we don’t have the water,” she said during a tour with acequia officials. “And what you all are facing is not of your making, right? But you are having to work through the struggle of making whatever water is available work for everybody in the community.”
Some earthen canals didn’t get a drop of water this year, another example of parched Western conditions. Like many parts of the world, the region has become warmer and drier over the last 30 years, mainly due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas development and transportation.
Boat docks are high and dry at reservoirs around New Mexico, and Lake Powell along the Utah-Arizona line has hit a record low this year. A key Northern California reservoir that helps water a quarter of U.S. crops is shrinking.
For mayordomos — those who oversee acequias and ensure equitable water distribution — it has become a scramble.
Less snow falls, and warmer temperatures melt it sooner. Dry soil soaks up runoff before it reaches streams and rivers that feed acequias.
Paula Garcia, New Mexico Acequia Association executive director, shuns the phrase “new normal” because she said that implies stability in weather patterns the community’s ditches rely on…
Federal water management policies have complicated matters as needs of cities and other users overshadow these Hispanic and Indigenous communities.
Their traditions are rooted in Moorish ingenuity first brought to Europe and then to North America via Spanish settlers. Those water-sharing ideas were blended with already sophisticated irrigation culture developed by Indigenous communities in what is now the southwestern U.S.
What developed were little slices of paradise, with gardens and orchards that have sustained communities for generations.
Roughly 640 New Mexico acequias still provide water to thousands of acres of farmland.
Darel Madrid, Rio Chama Acequia Association president, didn’t grow a garden this year. He wanted to lead by example…
After back-to-back record dry summer rainy seasons, some Southwest areas enjoyed above average rain this year. But maps are still bleak, with nearly 99% of the West dealing with some form of drought…
When water-sharing compacts involving some of New Mexico’s largest cities were first negotiated decades ago, Madrid said communities along Rio Chama were left out. Now, as supplies are scarce, acequias around Abiquiu have been forced to seek state funding to buy water from downstream users. If none is available, they go without.
As long as Rio Chama flows above 140 cubic feet per second, water can be diverted by acequias. The flow usually nosedives in May, and rationing starts when it drops below 50 cfs. Aside from isolated spikes from storm runoff, the flow is now less than half that.
Madrid said acequias would benefit from permanent water storage in an upstream reservoir, which would need federal approval…
Part of that means reimagining acequias without giving up the sense of community they command.
At Santa Cruz Farm, owner Don Bustos is growing crops in greenhouses in fall and winter when less water is needed and evaporation is reduced, he said.
In Taos, acequia leaders have bumped up annual cleaning to the fall so they don’t miss out on early runoff…
Acequias have overcome periodic environmental crises, rivalries among water users and profound historical changes, Spanish historian and anthropologist Luis Pablo Martínez Sanmartín noted in a 2020 research report. He said survival has hinged on a common-good design based on cooperation, respect, equity, transparency and negotiation.
While monsoon season does not conclude officially until the end of September, it is clear the summer weather pattern that typically brings a good deal of moisture to the Southwest has helped ease the drought’s grip on much of New Mexico.
Chuck Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said the agency will not have figures on monsoon rain totals until early October, after the season has drawn to a close.
But a look at the U.S. Drought Monitor map for New Mexico — and the rest of the Southwest — shows substantial improvement over the past two and a half months. Many parts of the state that were bone dry at the beginning of summer have emerged mostly, or even entirely, from the drought.
Nowhere has that change been more dramatic than in the southeast corner of the state. According to the Southwest and California Drought Status Update issued June 24 by the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, parts of seven counties in that corner of New Mexico were characterized as being in exceptional drought — the worst category — and every county in that region was suffering from severe, extreme or exceptional drought, the three worst categories.
Now, two and a half months later, the picture there is much different, as portions of six of those counties are now characterized as normal. Much of the remaining territory in the southeast corner of the state is classified as being only abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought.
While other parts of the state also saw marked improvement — portions of 13 counties in New Mexico now are drought free, compared to parts of just two counties on June 24 — others have not been so fortunate. Many parts of central, southwest and northwest New Mexico that were locked in drought at the beginning of the summer remain that way, even though their status has improved, as well.
The drought continues to take a heavy toll on San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Las Alamos, Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna counties, with each of those counties still showing substantial territory characterized as being in extreme drought, the second-worst category.
That’s not to say those locations are as bad off as they were even a month ago, when large portions of all those counties were experiencing exceptional drought. In fact, the percentage of the state that is classified as being in exceptional drought has declined from more than 50% at the start of 2021 to approximately 33% three months ago, 4.5% on Aug. 10 and 0% on Sept. 9. And while 21.2% of New Mexico was in extreme drought on Aug. 10, that percentage declined to 19.1% by Sept. 7.
According to drought.gov, this was the 32nd wettest August in New Mexico over the last 127 years. Las Cruces has enjoyed an especially good monsoon so far, having racked up 5.06 inches of precipitation over that period, the third-wettest monsoon on record, according to drought.gov.
San Juan County has not seen that kind of bounty, but it has experienced a relatively good monsoon season, at least by the paltry standards of recent years. Jones said Farmington has received 1.6 inches of moisture at Four Corners Regional Airport over the three-month period, a figure that nearly matches the 30-year average of 1.62 inches.
For the year, Farmington has drawn 4.31 inches of precipitation, which comes close to matching the figure of 4.68 inches the city has received on average through the end of August for the last 30 years. Over the last three decades, Farmington has averaged a total of 7.76 inches annually.
As of Sept. 7, the vast majority of San Juan County was still characterized as being in extreme drought, with only slivers of the southwest and southeast corners in severe drought. But on Aug. 10, approximately half the county was in exceptional drought, and now none of it is.
ALAMOSA just experienced its driest August ever, .01 inches of precipitation. The year also has seen Alamosa tie or break 12 high temperature records, according to the National Weather Service in Pueblo.
Don’t let the raindrops in the forecast fool you, either. What little precipitation falls now won’t change the trends of a warmer San Luis Valley and the challenges the change in climate is bringing to the Valley’s surface water and groundwater management practices. The average temperature this year to date is running 3.1f above the long term average for the January-to-July period.
Why it matters
“The concern for me is, we’re in months like August when we expect to get some of the monsoonal moisture,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, “and when we don’t, we go into the winter time dry. Even if we get above average precipitation in the winter months we can’t expect average stream flows in the spring because the moisture has to go back into wetting the landscape that was dried out this summer.”
If you’re looking for a silver lining, 2021 isn’t as warm as 2020. But then again, the January to July period of 2020 was also the 9th warmest of the past 73 years for maximum temperatures, according to NWS data.
Alamosa Record Temps 2021
Aug. 28 Temp 87, tied the record set in 2017
July 10 Temp 94, old record of 92 set in 2020 and 1992
July 9 Temp 92, tied the record set in 2003
July 8 Temp 91, tied the record set in 1989
June 17 Temp 92, old record of 89 set in 2012
June 16 Temp 94, old record of 87 set in 1950.
June 15 Temp 90, tied the record set in 1946 and 2000
June 14 Temp 91, old record of 88 set in 1952 and 2004
Here’s Part 1 of the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
The water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before
THEY all remember when the San Luis Valley brimmed with water.
South of San Luis, Ronda Lobato raced the rising floodwaters in San Francisco Creek every spring to fill sandbags that protected her grandparents’ farm.
North of Center, potato farmer Sheldon Rockey faced so much spring mud that he had to learn to extract his stuck tractor.
Outside Monte Vista, Tyler Mitchell needed only a hand shovel on the family farm near Monte Vista to reach shallow underground flows in the Valley’s once-abundant water table.
Today those tales of plentiful water seem like a distant mirage. Ten of the past 11 years have delivered below-average snowpacks for the upper Rio Grande basin, with this year’s snowpack measuring just 58 percent of normal at the key May 1 measurement. All but one of the main local reservoirs were less than half-filled.
Farmers face significant cutbacks from wells now and likely from river flows and irrigation ditches later this season.
Against this stark backdrop of drought, three other vast changes loom.
The biggest is a state court judgment that came after decades of excessive well pumping by valley farmers and ranchers. Local irrigators now must restore 400,000 acre feet of water – more than 1.3 million people in metro Denver use in an entire year – to Valley groundwater systems within 10 years.
A second challenge is a plan by former Gov. Bill Owens and a metro Denver business group to pump and divert additional deep groundwater from the San Luis Valley to new buyers outside the San Luis Valley, likely on the Colorado Front Range.
And the third long-term issue is a forecast for flows to be reduced even further, perhaps as much as 30 percent, because of climate change, according to Colorado’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan.
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before.
Shortages loom. Cuts seem inevitable.
“Our demand for water has far exceeded our supply for years, and now our supply is in a 20-year downward trend,” said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. “We keep facing drought after drought. The sense of urgency continues to build.”
It all threatens the way of life for the 46,000 residents of the San Luis Valley, where agriculture is the driving economic force. Farming and ranching account for $340 million of sales each year while providing 18 percent of the region’s jobs. That puts agriculture behind only the government as a source of local employment. About one of every three dollars of basic income in the San Luis Valley comes from agriculture.
The San Luis Valley is the nation’s No. 5 producer of potatoes – behind only the tates of Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, and Oregon – and a leading supplier of quinoa and alfalfa hay. (The Colorado Potato Administrative Committee says the San Luis Valley is the No. 2 producer in the U.S. for fresh potatoes.)
In a region long beset with poverty – one of every four Valley residents is impoverished, nearly double the statewide rate – farming and ranching have offered one economic success story. In Saguache County, the annual net income, or profit, per farm was $113,000, says the US Department of Agriculture census. Net income per farm in Rio Grande County was $105,000.
But all those jobs, all that money, hinge on one thing: an ample and dependable water supply.
“The climate of the San Luis Valley is arid, and a successful agricultural economy would not be possible without irrigation,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
Average annual precipitation on the Valley floor is 7 to 10 inches, but potatoes, for example, need an additional 14 to 17 inches of irrigation water during the growing season. Alfalfa hay, the Valley’s top crop by acreage, requires up to 24 inches for a crop.
This adds up to an enormous thirst. According to state water engineers, San Luis Valley agriculture accounts for 810,000 acre feet of consumptive water use per year.
By contrast, the Denver Water Department needs only 247,000 acre feet of water to supply the 1.3 million people within its city and suburban service boundaries.
In other words, metro Denver requires only one third as much water as the San Luis Valley to produce a gross domestic product 60 times greater – a $202 billion annual economy vs. a $3.3 billion economy.
Because the San Luis Valley has so much water being put to comparatively low economic use, metro Denver water developers continue to focus a covetous eye on Rio Grande diversions.
After the AWDI proposals of the 1980s and the Gary Boyce plan of the 1990s, the Gov. Bill Owens-backed Renewable Water Resources proposal is the latest push to take advantage of relatively low prices to pipe water out of the San Luis Valley.
In the crosshairs is one of the oldest agricultural traditions and cultures in Colorado.
The first surface water right in Colorado, appropriated in 1852, is the People’s Ditch near San Luis. With a series of community irrigation canals called acequias, Hispanic settlers soon started growing food in the high desert with water from the Conejos, Rio Grande, Alamosa, Culebra, San Luis, Saguache, Carnero, and Trinchera, among other rivers and creeks.
By the 1870s, as much as 50,000 acres in the San Luis Valley was irrigated. After the arrival of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, that number soared to 400,000 acres by the 1880s. By 1900, demand for water in several valley streams already outstripped the natural supply.
Farmers responded by building reservoirs, and, especially, digging wells. By the time of World War I, the San Luis Valley was home to at least 5,000 groundwater wells. The rush was on. Underground supplies seemed endless.
Until they weren’t. In 1972, Colorado water officials ordered a moratorium on construction of new wells in most of the valley, and then ended new appropriations of groundwater in the rest of the valley in 1981, which was one of the worst snowpack years on record, with just 11 percent of normal on May 1.
Luckily, that one terrible year of drought in 1981 was followed by six successive years of some of the best snowpacks in the recorded history of the Rio Grande Basin. From 1982-1987, few worried much about groundwater because the rivers were flooding.
Another run of giant snowpacks in the mid-1990s helped to keep the pressure off groundwater pumping – while helping to build the memories of valley residents like Ronda Lobato, Sheldon Rockey, and Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember the snowbanks being bigger than me – the winters were so long and cold,” said Lobato, whose aunt and uncle lived along San Francisco Creek. “When the runoff came, we had to fill sandbags to protect against flooding. Today there is no water in San Francisco Creek. It doesn’t run at all.”
Farming is never easy, but water shortages make it even tougher, said Tyler Mitchell.
“I remember as a kid being able to dig with a shovel to find water. Now I might have to go 30 feet to find it,” said Mitchell, whose family runs 18 center pivot irrigation rigs. “The ditch water used to go all summer long. Now we’re lucky to get one month, and some ditches do only a few weeks. We don’t have enough surface water to grow cash-value crops every year.”
The mid-1990s were the heyday of San Luis Valley agriculture, said potato grower Sheldon Rockey, and that era changed the way of thinking for a generation of farmers.
“I remember when the river flooded three years in a row. I got the tractor stuck in the mud,” Rockey said. “There was a lot of money made without worrying much about water. The issue with the older crowd of farmers is that they were so successful for so long. Now that we’re in drought, it’s hard to change your thinking.”
The bountiful water years of the 1980s and 1990s in the San Luis Valley have flipped the typical generational divide in farming. Because they lived through the wettest times, the older farmers tend to have a brighter view than the younger farmers, local agricultural officials say.
“Farming is an optimistic profession,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “People my father’s age have seen farming here at its best, when we had giant years for water. But the data and science don’t give me many reasons to think those days will come back around.
“If the big water years do come back, that would be tremendous. But I don’t want us to ignore the freight train coming at us right now.”
That train began blasting its horn about 20 years ago.
State water engineers long had been concerned about well-pumping by valley irrigators, but the connection between groundwater and surface water was not clearly understood. Starting in January 1976, engineers began monitoring the level of valley aquifers. Groundwater declined steadily but gradually, which led to the state moratoriums on drilling.
However, 2002 was the driest on record for the Rio Grande Basin, with a May snowpack of just 6 percent. With little available surface water, valley irrigators turned underground for supplies.
The result: In just one year, engineers recorded a 400,000 acre foot drop in Vvalley aquifers. That is a huge amount of water – a single acre-foot is enough to support two families of four people for a year.
In response to the vast agricultural overpumping came a flurry of laws, regulations, and court actions.
For the past decade, valley irrigators have been under a court order to maintain a sustainable aquifer system. That means restoring at least 400,000 acre feet to underground supplies, officials say. (Engineering studies say the unconfined aquifer actually has been drained by as much as 1 million acre feet since 1976.)
Little progress has been made to return that water in the past 10 years. Now irrigators face a 2031 deadline to repay the water debt.
Still, 5,000 irrigation wells continue to pump in the valley, including 3,000 in the key Subdistrict 1 north of Monte Vista and west of Hooper.
The $426,000 state Rio Grande Implementation Plan was blunt: “Because the sustained and lingering drought since 2002 has not been matched with a decline in agricultural consumptive use, use of the aquifers is unsustainable.”
What local water officials now fear is a replay in the San Luis Valley of what happened to irrigators on the South Platte River, where years of over-pumping by farmers, combined with a resulting state court order, led to the 2006 shutdown of 440 wells and the pumping curtailment of hundreds of others.
In the San Luis Valley, the clock is ticking. A reckoning awaits.
“Shutting down wells – there are people here who can’t survive that,” said Simpson, the state senator. “We are 10 years into this plan to create and maintain a sustainable aquifer system, but we are not yet back to where we started. There are no easy solutions.”
Scientists say it won’t get any easier. Because of climate change, a study by the Bureau of Reclamation, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasts even more challenges for water users in the Upper Rio Grande Basin:
Flows will decrease by 33 percent by 2100 at the Rio Grande near Del Norte, Conejos River near Mogote, Los Pinos River near Ortiz, and San Antonio River at Ortiz. Flows will decrease by 50 percent at the Rio Grande near Lobatos.
Peak river flows will come earlier, shifting from June to May.
Fewer water rights will be served. From 1950 to 1999, the average junior-most water right to be served in June on the Rio Grande was a 1910 priority, but by 2100 it will be an 1890 priority.
“We are an incredible agricultural community, but we don’t have the water supply we used to,” said Dutton, the Rio Grande representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “There are more people who want water than there is water available. We are facing scarcity.”
Here’s Part 2 in the series from The Alamosa Citizen (Mark Obmascik):
Plan to pipe water to Front Range has big backers, few specifics
THE Front Range executives who want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere are clear about a few things:
They have money. They are backed by former Gov. Bill Owens. And they think their plan will benefit the Valley.
Beyond that, however, details remain sketchy.
Where exactly would the Renewable Water Resources project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers?
Also: If this project will truly help the San Luis Valley, then why are the political, water, and farm leaders of the Valley overwhelmingly against it?
“We know San Luis Valley citizens are looking forward to jobs and an uptick in the local economy as a result of our project moving forward,” said Renewable Water Resources executives in a prepared statement. “Citizens responded favorably to the more than $50 million community fund – run by the community – that would be created to address critical issues which could include public education, economic diversity, senior assistance programs, conservation efforts, law enforcement, mental health services, and more.
“We have asked the unelected Rio Grande Water Conservation District Board the following question, ‘What are you for?’ This question has been met with silence other than falling back on the status quo which means higher taxes and more regulation for the valley’s struggling farms and ranches.”
Local officials say Renewable Water Resources is not to be trusted.
“They continue to use false information to describe and promote their project,” said Heather Dutton, manager of the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and the Rio Grande Basin representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. “I don’t think people will fall for a bunch of falsehoods.”
Valley native Ken Salazar – the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, U.S. senator, state Attorney General, and current U.S. ambassador to Mexico – said the project would proceed “over my dead body.”
Local opponents of the plan formed a group, Protect Our Water, that lists as members: 15 local water districts and entities; 22 cities and towns; 22 conservation and environmental groups; and two farm groups. It lists statements of opposition to the RWR proposal from eight separate local governments, including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, the city of Alamosa, and Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
The group says it is organized around a main principle: “There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.” It has a web page dedicated to correcting what it says are RWR’s numerous misstatements about the project.
RWR executives say they can’t be specific about project locations, timetables, or costs because they are focused on winning Valley support and filing a legal case in Colorado’s water court, which could take three to five years to process. That case would help determine whether the San Luis Valley has enough water for RWR to legally export without hurting existing users.
In general, RWR says it wants to build a wellfield northeast of Moffat. A pipeline would carry water north along state Highway 17, more than 1,000 feet up and over Poncha Pass, to some uncertain location.
Though a few Front Range cities such as Aurora and Colorado Springs draw some water from the Arkansas River basin, most metro Denver utilities rely on the South Platte River, a more distant location that would require a much longer pipeline and additional pumping costs for RWR.
RWR says it has no identified customers for its proposed project. Executives have been pitching it to utilities on the Front Range.
The financial incentives for RWR: Wholesale water prices are five to 10 times higher on the populated Front Range than in the agricultural San Luis Valley.
In the San Luis Valley, RWR proposes to drill nearly a half-mile into the Valley’s deep aquifer to pump out 22,000 acre-feet of water per year. At the same time, RWR says it will buy and retire 31,000 acre feet of water currently used in the Valley for irrigated agriculture. As a result, RWR says a “surplus of 9,000 acre-feet will go back into the San Luis Valley’s shallow section of the aquifer.”
The company says it is “investing $68 million to pay local farmers and ranchers who voluntarily wish to retire their water rights above market rate.”
In addition to the purchase of those water rights, RWR said it will donate $50 million to a locally controlled community fund. The company expects that fund to generate $3 million to $4 million per year in contributions for local causes.
RWR also has agreed to donate a 3,000-acre ranch for use as elk habitat near the Baca National Wildlife Refuge south of Crestone.
“To give the above numbers some context,” RWR said in a statement, “the poverty rate of the San Luis Valley is greater than 35 percent and the average median household income is under $26,000. We do believe our commitments to the community will better the valley.”
However, many questions remain unanswered. RWR declined to make available any project executives, including Owens, governor of Colorado from 1999-2007, for an interview for this story, insisting instead that all questions be written and answered via email.
After years of water overuse, Valley irrigators now are operating under state orders to reduce consumption by hundreds of thousands of acre feet. Local water officials remain dubious that RWR can legally remove more water from a system already facing significant cutbacks.
On top of the existing legal challenges, local engineers are girding for hydrologic changes caused by climate change. One state study estimated streamflows in the upper Rio Grande basin will plunge by a third in the next 80 years because of climate change.
Project opponents now must toe a fine line politically. Though they want to highlight the current water shortages because of court rulings, continuing drought, and climate change, they don’t want farmers to give up hope and sell to RWR.
In a Valley dominated by agricultural business, exporting water for other uses will throttle the future economy of the San Luis Valley, RWR opponents say. They point to the example of Crowley County in the lower Arkansas River Valley, where irrigators sold their supplies to Front Range cities, allowing a few farmers to reap big paydays at the expense of the rest of the southeastern Colorado economy.
An irrigator who drops out of a local ditch makes it harder economically for remaining farmers to continue to operate and maintain the ditch.
Many local farmers say buy-and-dry policies threaten the future of agriculture in the Valley.
“Our community is centered on water and farming, and I hope the community sticks together,” said potato farmer Tyler Mitchell. “But in the grand scheme of life, money talks. If the price is right, you might see people sell. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mitchell and other farmers are heartened by the Valley’s history of defeating other water export proposals.
In the 1980s, former Gov. Dick Lamm and American Water Development Inc. sought to develop and export as much as 200,000 acre-feet per year from the Valley’s confined aquifer. After five years of litigation and a lengthy trial, AWDI lost in court.
In the 1990s, Stockman’s Water, led by Monte Vista native Gary Boyce, purchased the Baca Ranch and proposed to export 150,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Valley. Boyce lost two statewide votes and struggled in water court. The Nature Conservancy bought the Baca Ranch in 2002.
Most political leaders in the Valley supported a drive to convert the Great Sand Dunes into a national park partly to help prevent water exports from the Valley. In 2008, the state granted a water right to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve for the groundwater beneath its boundaries.
According to the state’s Rio Grande Implementation Plan, it was the first nonconsumptive water right issued by the state of Colorado. “The water right precludes any withdrawal of water from the aquifers that would cause injury to the park’s environments, which are dependent on the groundwater,” the state plan says.
The Valley’s extensive wetlands and river habitats support at least 13 threatened and endangered species and more than 260 species of birds, including a major spring and fall flight of sandhill cranes and the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher.
Still, Sean Tonner, former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Bill Owens, led a drive to buy 11,500 acres of the Rancho Rosado from the former holdings of Boyce, who died in 2016.
The result is the current RWR project proposal, led by Tonner and backed by Owens and other former members of his gubernatorial administration.
(A detailed explanation of the history of San Luis Valley water export proposals, conducted by the University of Colorado Law School, is here.)
“Because of our project offerings – with this proposal – we can enrich the local economy, bring more jobs to the area, support essential non-profits and community groups, and improve the health of the area’s aquatic habits and wildlife,” RWR said in a statement.
The Protect Our Water coalition strongly disagrees.
“A plan being proposed by Renewable Water Resources will remove water from the Valley and permanently dry up at least 10,000 acres of farmland,” the group says. “It could also negatively impact the environment, including streams, rivers, The Great Sand Dunes National Park, refuges, wetlands, fish and wildlife. Water sustains our economy and lifestyle.
“There is no water available to move outside the San Luis Valley.”
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (John Livingston):
Colorado Parks and Wildlife successfully stocked a small number of pure Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout into Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes via helicopter on Aug. 24.
The fish used to stock the lakes came from the nearby Medano Creek drainage, which is located in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve in the San Luis Valley. That drainage was previously restored with Rio Grande cutthroat trout in the 1980s.
By pulling trout from Medano Creek, CPW aims to accelerate the restoration project in the Sand Creek drainage by stocking a small number of adult trout capable of producing a spawn as early as 2022.
After capturing Rio Grande cutthroat trout from Medano Creek, CPW coordinated with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control to stock Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes from a helicopter, using the same bucket a firefighting helicopter would use to dump water onto a fire.
CPW will stock another 500 fingerling Rio Grande cutthroat trout spawned at the Monte Vista Hatchery later this year. That stocking will be completed via airplane.
“This is a challenging project, but it will provide ideal and protected habitat for these fish,” said CPW Senior Aquatic Biologist John Alves. “We are on our way to rebuilding a conservation population of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.”
Last year, CPW treated the Upper Sand Creek drainage to successfully remove non-native fish.
CPW, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Native American tribes have been working to re-establish Rio Grande cutthroats across their native range for more than 20 years. Currently, Rio Grande cutthroat can only be found in about 12% of its historic habitat. Mining, water development, intensive land-use, stocking of non-native fish and over-fishing have caused the trout’s populations to decline significantly during the last 150 years.
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 the South Platte drainage. CPW is also working on a variety of projects to restore those populations.
FromThe New Mexico Political Report (Susan Dunlap):
Climate change isn’t in the future for New Mexico—it’s already here and impacting families of color, according to climate change experts.
From Navajo leaving their land due to dwindling resources, hotter wildfires altering landscapes, an increase of climate change refugees crossing outside ports of entry and wells running dry in rural areas, families of color in New Mexico are already feeling the heat from climate change, various sources told NM Political Report.
Joan Brown, executive director of climate justice organization New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light, said it’s hard to not feel “immobilized” by the immensity of the problem…
According to a Yale Project on Climate Change and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication report, communities of color are likely to disproportionately feel climate change more than white communities due to socioeconomic inequities. Communities of color are likely to be more vulnerable to heat waves, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and the resulting job opportunity dislocations, the report said.
Brown said she believes the first aspect of climate change to have the greatest impact on families of color in New Mexico will be the intensity of forest fires in the state.
This week forest fire smoke from western states has affected skies and air pollution in the eastern part of the U.S. and the Bootleg Fire in Oregon is so intense it is causing its own weather…
Families of color who live in Albuquerque are also feeling the effects of climate change and the ensuing severe drought, Brown said. Her organization has been involved in tree plantings, as part of the City of Albuquerque’s initiative to plant thousands of trees in city neighborhoods. Brown said New Mexico Interfaith Power and Light has focused its efforts in the International District in Albuquerque because the area acts as a “heat sink” due to a lack of vegetation and too much concrete, she said.
Heat sinks, which occur in urban settings, are more likely to affect low income and diverse communities such as the International District, Brown said…
Brown said there are places around New Mexico where wells are running dry. She said the state needs to allocate money and put more effort toward water preservation, adaptation and mitigation…
In southeast New Mexico, where significant oil and gas extraction takes place in the Permian Basin, Brown said the “folks suffering the most” are those who have less access to income. She said families of color who are low-income suffer from pollution-related health issues such as asthma.
With the anticipated increased heat from climate change, she said, low income families of color will suffer the most because they often don’t have evaporative coolers, insulated houses or air conditioning.
In another corner of the state, local organizer Nena Benavidez works with the social justice organization New Mexico CAFé in the Silver City area, the home of the Santa Rita Copper Mine. As the state plans to transition to meet legislation enacted to plan for a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030, Benavidez is focused on the transitioning economy for rural locales, such as Silver City, which has been dependent on the metal mining industry since the late 1800s.
The Energy Transition Act is about phasing out the state’s reliance on coal, not copper, but New Mexico CAFé is concerned about what happens to jobs in rural communities, such as Silver City as the planet heats up. Johanna Bencomo, executive director for New Mexico CAFé, said immigrants and people of color in rural areas frequently work outside in the extractive industries or agriculture…
Bencomo said this summer, which has been one of the hottest and driest on record, impacted people of color picking green chile, as well as people of color working in the copper mine and in dairies.
New Mexico CAFé is pushing for a “just transition” to a green economy especially for the state’s rural communities. Not everyone wants to leave their small towns for a bigger city, Bencomo said…
The Navajo Nation
Mario Atencio, who is Diné [Navajo] and a board member of Diné C.A.R.E. (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment), said the Navajo, who are still living on their traditional land, are already being dispersed from their homeland due to climate change.
“Even now, people are selling their cows. It’s kind of happening. There are no jobs, you can’t raise and sustain a herd of cows, what else are you going to do? You’ve got to go work. It’s not going to be a mass migration. It’s happening very slowly, a climate change diaspora,” he said…
He said some Indigenous people who rely on medicinal plants are not finding those plants due to climate change and worsening drought, which he said is a matter of food security and food sovereignty…
But, the biggest climate change challenge facing the Navajo will be sustainable water resources, Atencio said. Robyn Jackson, Diné [Navajo] and climate and energy outreach coordinator for Diné C.A.R.E., said a number of Navajo farmers did not plant this year because of the significant decrease in water due to the severe drought…
Not being able to plant, as Navajo people have done for generations, affects mental health because many dry land farmers received their seeds from their grandparents. She said maintaining the generational traditions are a reminder of the Navajo way of life.
Navajo and other Indigenous people have had to suffer the effects of environmental racism for generations. Jackson said that during the 1970s, the U.S. government named areas of the Navajo Nation a national sacrifice zone to meet the energy needs for large cities in the southwest region…
Oil and gas wells have been in operation on Navajo land since the 1920s, Jackson said. The extractive industries have brought “huge environmental impacts” with air and water quality issues and now that some, such as the coal industry, are in decline and closing, this brings additional economic impacts as well, Jackson said.
In a land where water is scarce and a third of Navajo families lack electricity and running water at home, the Navajo’s water issues have been exacerbated by different types of mining that American industry has extracted on Navajo land, including uranium mining and strip coal mining, Jackson said. This has left the Navajo with some contaminated water sources. She said there are over 1,000 abandoned mines on Navajo land.
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
Once again this summer, rain has been hard to come by in this historic farming valley of southern Colorado. The average annual precipitation in the middle of the San Luis Valley hovers around seven inches — about as low as it gets in all of Colorado, according to the state’s climate center.
And yet farming prevails. It is the lifeblood of Alamosa, the town that rose from a once-bustling railroad and today is often passed by travelers en route to more flashy destinations on the Western Slope. Unlike other rural communities that have swapped mining or energy for tourism, the ruling industry here is and always has been agriculture.
“The hospital, the county and city offices and school district, all of those are important,” said Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman. “But farming and ranching, that’s it. That’s huge.”
But by the turn of the 20th century, the Rio Grande was considered over-appropriated. Demand outpaced supply.
“So we’ve always lived in this area where there was this level of stress,” said Heather Dutton, manager of San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and fifth-generation native.
The difference, she said, is this century’s more dire circumstances.
A multi-agency report last year found average annual streamflows to be steadily declining since the 1930s, with drops worsening in the 2000s. Citing climate change, the report warned of that long trusted snowpack in the mountains becoming less dependable.
Where Simpson’s and Dutton’s grandfathers and fathers didn’t have the Rio Grande to count on, they had groundwater. They joined drilling and pumping that ramped up in the ’30s. The shallow and “unconfined” aquifer and deeper “confined” aquifer, both remnants of an ancient lake, represented turning points for farming.
“But it was also a turning point for what my generation is now grappling with,” Dutton said, “where now we have too many wells, we have too much pumping, and we’re taking more out of the aquifer than we’re putting back in.”
The decades saw agreements for taking and giving back — for digging a hole, filling it with water and thus recharging the unconfined aquifer in hopes of making up for Mother Nature.
“By far, that’s where most of the groundwater withdrawals occur in the valley,” Simpson said. “The potatoes are grown and raised above that unconfined aquifer. Most of the intense irrigation is above that unconfined aquifer.”
Simpson manages the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, which has tracked the aquifer’s storage since 1976. From the mid-’80s to today, charts show a staggering drop: A change amounting to about 1.3 million acre-feet of water.
The severe drought of 2002 started the steep trend of decline. Since then, there have been year-to-year gains of storage — eight years totaling 746,791 acre-feet. But there have been more years of drops, 10 totaling more than 1.7 million acre-feet. Lows this year are on par with record lows following the 2012 drought, data show.
The hope of Simpson and Dutton is to locally regulate before higher powers enforce harsher demands. The state has called on the valley to bring water back up to pre-2000 levels, or else face possible consequences of widespread shutdowns in 2030…
Farmers are taxing themselves to pump, with that money going to other farmers to pump less. Simpson and Dutton have been encouraging creativity, such as less water-needy crops like hemp and quinoa.
But they fear more drastic measures.
“There is a need to physically take land out of production,” Dutton said. “And it’s not like it’s just one person owns everything and we can just say, ‘Hey, can you cut back your farm by 30%?’ There are hundreds of families that farm and ranch here.
“And this is how they make their living, it’s in their blood, they want to do it, they’re proud of it. So trying to get people to cut back or stop farming altogether, it’s a study in psychology and human behavior. It’s really hard.”
And there are broader ramifications to consider when farms close, Simpson said. The well-being of his hometown is at stake when that happens, he said — Alamosa’s school, hospital and small businesses.
Lawsuit threatened to protect river flows and trigger commitments to long-term solutions
To maintain a living Rio Grande and seek climate resilience for both people and ecosystems, WildEarth Guardians today warned federal and state water managers in New Mexico that it will file a lawsuit in federal court if the water agencies don’t do more to protect and ensure recovery of imperiled species. The group sent its 60-day notice of intent to sue to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, State of New Mexico, and Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District detailing how past and present water management decisions continue to harm river flows, ecosystem health, and violate the Endangered Species Act.
“The West is experiencing a collision of crises and the Rio Grande is at its center,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The path forward to a sustainable, climate resilient, living river will require learning to live within the river’s means and developing creative solutions that give a voice to values long ignored including flowing rivers, healthy ecosystems, and equity for human communities.”
This year’s flows in the Rio Grande at the Otowi Gauge in northern New Mexico were estimated at 44 percent of average. The meager flows, the very limited amount of water in storage, and the inability to store spring runoff due to restrictions under the Rio Grande Compact mean very few opportunities for maintaining a connected river or flows to farmers through the summer.
“This is really a worst-case scenario year on the Rio Grande,” explained Pelz. “Our hope is that these conditions will bring urgency and willingness for water managers and other interested communities and organizations to develop a comprehensive suite of solutions to deal with the crippling effects of climate change in an already overallocated river system.”
The Rio Grande’s management in central New Mexico through Albuquerque is guided by the 2016 Biological Opinion issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The document is a collection of commitments made by the federal and state agencies to ensure the survival and recovery of three listed species including the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, and the yellow-billed cuckoo. The group argues that the existing commitments are not enough to protect the river ecosystem or the vulnerable species given the warming climate and reduced flows in the river.
“As conditions on the river continue to deteriorate due to climate change, the federal and state agencies have a duty to review their commitments and the assessment of harm to the listed species in the Biological Opinion,” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, Legal Director at WildEarth Guardians. “We hope this notice letter does what it is intended to do, which is to allow the agencies to engage in dialogue, reassess the situation, and meet the moment with solutions that evolve with the times. We look forward to engaging with the named parties and anyone else who has ideas for sustaining a living Rio Grande.”
Over the two past decades, Guardians and other groups have urged the agencies to implement a water acquisition and leasing program to allow water to be used for environmental flows. These strategies are beginning to be implemented, but there is urgency to bring this program (as well as others) up to scale so that opportunities exist, even in less than ideal years, to help ensure the survival of river ecosystems, meet downstream water obligations, and rebalance inequities to the river and communities.
“It’s becoming crystal clear that the predictions of climate scientists will and are coming to fruition,” added Pelz. “The solutions we thought we had decades to implement to avoid a catastrophe need to be designed and implemented now. It’s like the saying that ‘the best time to plant a tree is 30 years ago and the next best time is now.’”
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.”