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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.
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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
March 9th, 2021 12:00 PM through 1:00 PM
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.
From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan):
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.
From The Farmington Daily Times (Mike Easterling):
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.
From KOAA (Bill Folsom):
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.
Here’s the release from the USGS:
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
From The Valley Courier (Patrick Shea):
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.
From InkStain (John Fleck):
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.”
From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):
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.”
From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
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.
From Water Education Colorado (Susan Moran):
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.”
A voluntary approach
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.
From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Phil Casaus):
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.
From The 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.
From The Albuquerque Journal (Theresa Davis):
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.
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.
From Bloomberg Law (Ellen M. Gilmer):
The U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its new term next month with a unique “original jurisdiction” water dispute—the likes of which could become more common as the climate changes.
The justices are set to hear Texas v. New Mexico, virtually, on their first day of oral arguments Oct. 5. Original jurisdiction cases go straight to the high court, rather than working their way through lower benches first…
“The tradition has been the justices are not enthusiastic about hearing these cases because they involve such highly technical issues,” said University of Maryland law professor Robert Percival, who tracks environmental issues at the high court…
What’s on deck in Texas v. New Mexico?
Set for argument next month, Texas v. New Mexico involves the 1949 Pecos River Compact, which governs how the two states share water from the Pecos River, which runs more than 900 miles from northern New Mexico to western Texas.
The Supreme Court must decide whether a “river master” in charge of annual calculations gave New Mexico too much credit for water deliveries to Texas during a period of heavy rains and flooding from a major storm in 2014—when New Mexico stored water for its neighbor but ultimately lost some of it to evaporation.
The United States will argue as a friend-of-the-court supporting New Mexico in the case. The Bureau of Reclamation runs the New Mexico reservoir that held the water.
Does the case have broader impacts?
The dispute is an example of increasingly familiar situations in which decades-old water compacts don’t adequately account for population growth, economic shifts, and decreased rainfall and water storage capabilities, K&L Gates attorneys said in a recent analysis.
“As a result, these interstate compacts appear to be sometimes causing more disagreement than resolution,” attorneys Molly K. Barker, Natalie J. Reid, and Alyssa A. Moir wrote.
The Pecos River case will test the justices’ willingness to read water compacts strictly or flexibly, and to account for extreme weather and other changing circumstances, Craig said.
“It’s going to be interesting for seeing how the court tries to interpret these very old compacts in these situations that weren’t part of the bargain that states were initially striking,” she said…
What about future water disputes at the Supreme Court?
Two other interstate water cases are brewing before special masters, and could land on the Supreme Court’s calendar in a future term.
Texas is going up against both New Mexico and Colorado in a dispute over the Rio Grande Compact and how it treats groundwater that’s connected to the river. Mississippi and Tennessee are also fighting about groundwater in a closely watched case involving the states’ rights to a shared aquifer.
The cases are of particular interest as climate change affects water availability, University of Maryland’s Percival said.
“As climate change increases droughts and makes surface water increasingly scarce,” he said, “groundwater is where cities and states are increasingly turning for their water resources.”
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Peter Soeth):
The Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman announced that Reclamation will invest $3.3 million in 21 projects for WaterSMART Internal Applied Science Tools that build technical capacity within Reclamation.
“Information gained from these applied science tools will allow Reclamation and our partners to use best-available science for optimal water management under variable hydrologic conditions,” Commissioner Burman said. “The projects announced today will help inform specific water management decisions throughout the West.”
A project will assist New Mexico and reservoirs throughout the West. It will receive $199,764 to implement a known model to simulate regional climate and physical processes to estimate daily, monthly and annual evaporation across Elephant Butte Reservoir. These estimates will be compared to alternative estimates. The results will be used by the Albuquerque Area Office to support operations, to facilitate method comparison and identify future planning, operational and research needs on the topic. It will help with the development of alternative evaporation estimation techniques, production of daily evaporation time series at a reservoir and a broadening of weather prediction modeling capabilities.
Another project in Arizona will receive $200,000 to enhance precipitation and soil monitoring information in the Aravaipa watershed northeast of Tucson. Currently, there are only two weather stations within the watershed. The project includes the installation of two stations to monitor precipitation and soil moisture, which will better inform the Natural Resources Conservation Service forecasting models and United States Geological Survey surface water models. The work proposed in this project will help Reclamation and local partners predict flood risk, drought, erosion, and water quality concerns and better plan mitigation of these water management issues.
A third project will receive $120,000 to do predictive modeling to generate maps of invasive quagga and zebra mussel risk. The results will allow Reclamation to dedicate limited resources to high-risk locations and prepare facilities for potential control costs.
To view a complete list of projects, please visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart/appliedscience.
Applied Science Tools are part of the WaterSMART Program. Through WaterSMART, Reclamation works cooperatively with states, tribes and local entities as they plan for and implement actions to increase water supply reliability through investments to modernize existing infrastructure and attention to local water conflicts. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/watersmart to learn more.
From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Scott Wyland) via The Taos News:
A severe, prolonged drought is reducing the river’s flows to the lowest levels in decades, affecting cities’ drinking water supplies and compelling farmers to adjust how they water their fields.
[Glen] Duggins grows chile peppers, alfalfa and corn on his 400-acre farm in Lemitar, a tiny community north of Socorro. He already faces the prospect of restaurants buying fewer goods from him during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, when their operations have been limited by the state’s public heath orders. Now he’s also seeing higher costs to produce his crops due to pumping.
But he is fortunate, he said, because many farmers in the Middle Río Grande Valley don’t have water pumps and must shut down when the river gets low…
A thin mountain snowpack, recent heat wave and light monsoon have depleted water levels from the Colorado River Basin to the Chama River to the Río Grande. It’s perhaps the most arid year in a two-decade dry period in New Mexico, making climate scientists and water managers wonder whether this is the start of an even drier time that will demand a new, long-term approach to urban planning and water use.
Locally, the prolonged drought can be seen in cottonwoods’ foliage turning yellow six weeks early along a parched stretch of the Santa Fe River and the likelihood of the Buckman Direct Diversion — which pulls Río Grande flows for city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County water users — suspending operations for the first time in its 10-year history.
Everyone must prepare for how a warmer climate will diminish water supplies and put more stress on humans and the ecosystem, said Dave DuBois, a state climatologist at New Mexico State University.
“We need to address climate change and adapt to it,” DuBois said. “Not just in the here and now, but the next 20, 30 years.”
From InkStain (John Fleck):
One of the traditional “tragedy narratives” of western water is the idea that thirsty cities are draining our rivers. But in two of the last three years, precisely the opposite has happened here in Albuquerque.
We’ve been limping along on a very bad year on the Rio Grande, with some of the lowest flows through Albuquerque that we’ve seen in a while. And the limping will continue. But with irrigation water in storage just about gone, an agreement is taking shape that will use an unused chunk of Albuquerque’s imported Colorado River water to keep the Rio Grande from drying through Albuquerque in coming months.
This is possible because Albuquerque’s water conservation success has left it with more water rights than it currently needs, including water we import through the San Juan-Chama project, a transbasin diversion that brings Colorado River water through tunnels beneath the Continental Divide. Some of that, now sitting in storage in reservoirs up on the Chama, will be released in coming weeks to maintain flows in the river here in town.
A similar deal in the very dry summer of 2018 also used some of Albuquerque’s unused Colorado River apportionment to keep the Rio Grande wet.
To be clear, this isn’t a charitable contribution on Albuquerque’s part. As I understand the deal, three government agencies with a shared interest in keeping the river wet – the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – are paying the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for the water…
But it’s intriguing to see the traditional narrative turned on its head – water available for the environment because a city has more than it needs.
From The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (Lisa Cyriacks) via The Crestone Eagle:
In the San Luis Valley: water is and will always be a critical issue. While demands on our scarce water supply grow, there are many community-based efforts working to restore a better water balance and plan for our future.
In the case of groundwater, the amount of water withdrawn by legally permitted wells exceeds the amount of water refilling the aquifers.
At a recent symposium hosted by Adams State University’s Salazar Center, local water leaders presented information on key aspects of current water conditions and challenges.
Salazar Center Director, Rio de la Vista, “With this year’s water shortage, the time is now to raise our level of knowledge on the critical water issues here. We aim to engage more people in community-based efforts for a sustainable water future and we need everyone’s help to make that possible!”
Local water users and State officials recognized something needed to be done in response to a severe drought that started about 20 years ago and reached its peak in 2002. They banded together to form local groundwater sub-districts to balance water use and supply. Their goal is to make groundwater use sustainable and protect senior surface water right holders from water shortages due to groundwater pumping.
Despite efforts to meet a court-mandated goal to replenish the shallow aquifer to pre-2000 levels by 2030, significant progress was curtailed by another serious drought beginning in 2018.
Agriculture is the economic engine in the San Luis Valley. None of the region’s current crops could be grown if growers depended only on the 7.5 inches of annual precipitation that hits the valley floor. The valley is one of the world’s largest high-altitude deserts. Water users draw from the valley rivers and streams to irrigate their crops but the peak flows that are common in May and June dry up by July and August. Given the lack of water storage in the region, growers rely on groundwater to finish watering their crops.
The latest attempt to export water from the valley to the Front Range is led by Renewable Water Resources (RWR), based in the city of Centennial near Denver. This scheme is undermining local farmers’ efforts to address water shortages and could set a dangerous precedent of water export.
There is zero unappropriated water in the Rio Grande Basin. This means all surface water and groundwater is currently used by existing water users, leaving no water available for transport outside the valley.
RWR aims to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water and pipe it over Poncha Pass to the Front Range. Local water leaders believe that if the pipeline is built, the RWR project will be just the start and lead to further attempts to export water.
The proposal is opposed by the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District, Conejos Water Conservancy District, the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable as well as the City of Alamosa, Town of Del Norte, City of Monte Vista, Town of Saguache; joined by environmental groups, local businesses, and many farmers and ranchers.
There is widespread opposition in the valley to the RWR export scheme. Locals are concerned that RWR’s plan could turn Saguache County into another Crowley County, an area east of Pueblo that has been devastated economically by the sale of its water. See https://bit.ly/2CORMbB.
The San Luis Valley is a beloved place for many Colorado residents and travelers from across the country and around the world. With the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three extraordinary National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande Natural Area, the Rio Grande National Forest and many other public lands, the valley’s water sustains wildlife for viewing, hunting and fishing, and many forms of recreation. Sandhill crane migration attracts many visitors to the valley. Water export threatens the valley’s economy, which is dependent on agriculture.
Valley water leaders urge residents to take action by seeking out the facts about valley water resources and advocating for the truth about RWR’s export plans and the valley’s water supplies and hydrology.
Please see http://www.rgwcd.org for information about current aquifer levels and the subdistricts’ efforts to manage our groundwater.
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley) via The Brush News-Tribune:
How to survive in hotter, drier world a focus as 93% of state bakes in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought
The sun beat down, baking Colorado’s bone-dry, cracking San Luis Valley, where farmers for eight years have been trying to save their depleted underground water but are falling behind.
They’re fighting to survive at an epicenter of the West’s worsening water squeeze amid a 20-year shift to aridity. Federal data this past week placed 93% of Colorado in “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought .
And Gov. Jared Polis was listening now, as a group of farmers sat around a patio shaking their heads, frowning, frustration etched on their faces — down by 150,000 acre-feet of water below their aquifer-pumping target as the driest months begin.
“We’re about as lean as we possibly can be. We’ve re-nozzled our sprinklers. Our pumping is as efficient as it possibly can be. We’re trying different crops,” said Tyler Mitchell, who had cut his water use by 30% after installing soil moisture sensors and shifting from barley to quinoa. “But, at the end of the day, we have too many businesses that are trying to stay in business. I don’t know how we can reduce pumping more than we already have.”
How to adapt to a hotter, drier world is emerging as a do-or-die mission for people living around the arid West. Polis was in the San Luis Valley on Tuesday, embarking on a potentially groundbreaking statewide effort to explore solutions amid increasingly harsh impacts of climate warming, including wildfires burning more than 300 square miles of western Colorado.
Average temperatures will keep rising for decades, federal climate scientists say, based on the thickening global atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, now around 412 parts per million, the highest in human history. Heat is depleting water across the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins, where more than 50 million people live.
Nowhere have climate warming impacts exacerbated local difficulties more than here in the Massachusetts-sized, predominantly Hispanic, low-income San Luis Valley between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains of southern Colorado…
This year, the winter mountain snowpack that determines surface water flow in the Rio Grande River measured 33% of normal in spring. Rainfall so far, 2.7 inches, lags at around 38% of average.
And the Rio Grande barely trickles, at 7 cubic feet per second, leaving Colorado toward New Mexico and Texas. Those similarly drought-stricken states count on shares of surface water in the river under a 1938 interstate legal agreement.
Colorado farmers’ fallback habit of pumping more from the aquifers connected to the river — water use that is restricted under a locally-run, state-ordered conservation plan — has obliterated water savings painstakingly gained since 2012.
The 150,000 acre-feet draw-down this year hurled farmers practically back to their starting point. And a state-enforced deadline of 2030 for restoring the aquifer to a healthy level looms. If not met, state authorities could take control over wells.
Rio Grande Water Conservation District manager Cleave Simpson said recovery now requires a snow-dependent gain of 680,000 acre-feet — 4.5 times this year’s draw-down…
“A drier and hotter world”
Polis looked out the windows of a black utility vehicle and saw devastation spreading as climate warming impacts hit home. Hot wind churned dust around farms now abandoned and rented to newcomers struggling to get by. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food.
He saw farm crews toiling, coaxing the most from their heavy machinery, after flows from some wells had diminished and even reportedly pulled up just air.
He said he sees different dimensions of problems around climate warming.
On one hand, human emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases “are going up,” Polis said. “But, then, here in this world, it is about adapting to what is happening. I mean, the global effort needs to succeed. Climate change needs to slow down. Colorado is just a teeny piece of that — a fundamental issue affecting the entire world. America never should have pulled out of the Paris accords. I hope we return, and have a concerted international effort.
“But it is also a reality for how these farmers put food on their plate, for how their communities thrive in a drier and hotter world. … The same crops we have been growing, with one water and warm temperature profile, don’t work with the way things are now.”
Colorado agriculture commissioner Kate Greenberg said state leaders also will hear from producers enduring dry times on the Eastern Plains, where wheat harvests are expected to suffer. Agriculture statewide “is hurting” and the San Luis Valley stands out as “ground zero” in a water squeeze due to low snow, shrinking aquifers, drought and competing demands from inside and outside the valley. Legal obligations to leave water for New Mexico and Texas compel cuts that complicate solutions, Greenberg said…
Few of the farmers on the patio meeting with the governor saw much that state governments can do in the face of a possible environmental collapse.
Many have concluded that, as Jim Erlich said, “we’re going to be farming less here.” Some anticipated an agricultural landscape looking more like western Kansas…
Polis called climate warming “the new normal.” He asked the farmers: “Where does it lead? Do you see a way forward?” State projections show conditions for at lest 15 years will be “likely hotter and drier… What does that mean in terms of crop mix? What does it mean in terms of sustainability? What does it mean in communities?”
The farmers, about a dozen, said they’ll push ahead in the “sub-districts” they’ve formed to encourage saving groundwater — as an alternative to state engineer authorities controlling wells. They now pay fees for pumping and pooled funds can be used to pay farmers for leaving fields fallow…
An entrepreneurial businessman, Polis pushed toward what might be done to create better markets for crops, such as “Colorado quinoa” that use less water, giving a global perspective. “I mean, agriculture does occur in dry parts of the world. It has to work from a water perspective…
At another farm, Brendon and Sheldon Rockey showed Polis around. They’ve reduced their use of water from wells by 50% and prospered, growing 25 types of potatoes, shifting off water-intensive crops such as barley and planting more “Colorado Quinoa” along with a half dozen other growers.
Fallow fields fertilized with cows and planted with restorative “cover crops” help boost productivity by improving soil, Brendon Rockey told the governor. “I don’t have a mono-culture anywhere on this farm.”
As president of the potato producers’ council and leader of a water-saving sub-district, Sheldon Rockey is encouraging other farmers — optimistically despite increased stress around the depletion of aquifers. “We can still make it back,” he said, “if we have snow.”
Polis also suggested a relaxed state approach to the 2030 deadline for replenishing the shrinking aquifer. “It is about the long-term trends. … whether goals are being met. There’s nothing that would ever be done based on one bad year.”
The farmers were hanging on that.
“He is genuinely interested in providing what support the state can to help with our water balance challenges,” Simpson concluded following this first meeting.
But “farmers are frustrated,” he said, emphasizing that aquifer recovery can happen only “if mother nature brings snow.”
And Polis left with a more detailed sense of the stakes.
“What we want here is sustainability. That’s why I oppose trans-basin water diversions,” he said. “But we have to make sure that farmers here today don’t live at the expense of farmers here tomorrow and the next decade. This valley is about agriculture. If the water is sold off, or the water is used up, it will become a dust bowl.”
Here’s the release from Reclamation (Mary Carlson):
POJOAQUE, N.M. – The Bureau of Reclamation began construction on August 10, 2020 on a water system that will bring clean drinking water to approximately 10,000 people and ensure a reliable water supply for residents of the Pueblos of Pojoaque, Nambé, San Ildefonso and Tesuque, as well as some residents of Santa Fe County.
“This is an exciting day for Reclamation and all Aamodt Indian Water Rights Settlement parties,” said Commissioner Brenda Burman. “Countless hours of hard work and coordination between the many partners led to this moment, and we can now begin building this water system.”
Construction officially began this week at the water intake features on San Ildefonso Pueblo. Phase one of the project includes water intake structures, a control building, 20 miles of water conveyance pipeline, three water storage tanks and a water treatment plant on San Ildefonso, Pojoaque and Nambe Pueblos.
“The start of the construction of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is a milestone that we at the Pueblo de San Ildefonso have heard and talked about for many years and it is hard to believe that it is finally happening. This is because the Pueblo has been involved in the Aamodt water rights litigation for decades and the regional water system is a core part of that settlement that previous San Ildefonso Governors and Tribal Council members have long discussed, debated, negotiated and fought for because the regional water system will insure clean drinking water for our Pueblo community and others in the Pojoaque Basin,” said Pueblo de San Ildefonso Governor Perry Martinez. “The Pueblo de San Ildefonso, along with leaders from my sister Pueblos of Nambe, Pojoaque and Tesuque, and our partners at the County of Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico have worked diligently for many years and overcame many hurdles to get to this point and I applaud everyone’s efforts today.”
The water system will divert water from the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. The system will include water treatment facilities, along with storage tanks and transmission and distribution pipelines with the capability to supply up to 4,000 acre-feet per year (about 3.57 million gallons per day) of drinking water.
The Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is part of the Aamodt Settlement Agreement and was authorized by Congress under the Aamodt Litigation Settlement Act of 2010 to settle Indian water rights disputes in the Pojoaque Basin.
“The Pueblo of Nambé is pleased that the construction of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System is beginning, marking a significant step toward implementation of the Aamodt water rights settlement. Construction of the Regional Water System represents the cooperative resolution of over more than four decades of litigation,” said Nambe Pueblo Governor Phillip A. Perez. “The Pueblo, together with the Pueblos of Pojoaque, San Ildefonso and Tesuque, and their partners the County of Santa Fe, the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico are finally starting construction of a water system that will provide reliable, clean water to the four Pueblos and the residents of the Pojoaque Basin. On behalf of the Pueblo of Nambé, please join me in celebrating this important occasion.”
“We are excited to finally begin constructing this vitally important project that will soon deliver a firm, reliable, and safe water supply to all the Aamodt settlement parties in the Pojoaque Valley,” said New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio.
“Santa Fe County applauds this significant step forward toward completion of the Pojoaque Basin Regional Water System, the signature feature of the Aamodt Settlement which will bring a new source of safe and reliable drinking water to the Pojoaque Basin. We look forward to working with all of our partners and the Bureau of Reclamation to ensure sufficient federal funds are authorized to complete the project beyond this stage of limited construction,” said Santa Fe County Manager Katherine Miller.
From Water Education Colorado (Caitlin Coleman):
The race against time continues for farmers in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, with the state’s top water regulator warning that a decision on whether hundreds of farm wells will be shut off to help save the Rio Grande River could come much sooner than expected.
July 28, at a virtual symposium on the Rio Grande River, the state warned growers that they were running out of time to correct the situation.
“We’ll see in the next couple of years if we can turn around this trick,” said State Engineer Kevin Rein. “If we’re not turning it around, we need to start having that more difficult conversation.”
The valley is home to the nation’s second-largest potato economy and growers there have been working voluntarily for more than a decade to wean themselves from unsustainable groundwater use and restore flows in the Rio Grande. Thousands of acres of land have been dried up with farmers paying a fee for the water they pump in order to compensate producers who agree to fallow land.
The San Luis Valley, which receives less precipitation than nearly any other region in Colorado, is supplied by the Rio Grande, but under the river lies a vast aquifer system that is linked to the river. It once had so much water that artesian springs flowed freely on the valley floor.
As modern-day farmers began putting powerful deep wells into the aquifer, aquifer levels declined, and flows in the river declined too as a result, hurting the state’s ability to deliver Rio Grande water downstream to New Mexico and Texas, as it is legally required to do.
Between July 2019 and July 2020 the valley’s unconfined aquifer, which is fed by the Rio Grande River, dropped by 112,600 acre-feet. All told the aquifer has lost around 1 million acre-feet of water since the drought of 2002.
Through a plan written by growers in the valley and approved by the state in 2011, farmers had 20 years, from 2011 to 2031, to restore the aquifer. But multiple droughts in the past 19 years have made clear that the region can’t rely on big snow years to replenish the valley’s water supplies because there are fewer of them, thanks to climate change.
“So what is the future, the short-term future, if we can’t count on climate? And let’s admit we can’t,” Rein said. “If climate’s not cooperating the only thing that can be done is consuming less water.”
Adding to pressure on the region is a proposal by Denver developers to buy thousands of acres of the valley’s farm land, leaving some of the associated water rights behind to replenish the aquifer, while piping thousands of acre-feet of water northeast to the metro area.
Rein said drastic steps, like drying up more fields and sharply limiting how much growers can pump, are needed. But this could result in bankruptcies and could cripple the valley’s $370 million agriculture economy, which employs the majority of workers in the region. Worse still, though, would be the shutdown of all wells in the region, which is what could occur if farmers aren’t able to make progress toward aquifer sustainability.
While the deadline to restore the aquifer is set for 2031, if it becomes clear before then that growers aren’t able to restore groundwater levels, Rein will be forced to take action early by turning off all wells.
Rein said his decision likely won’t come as early as next year. But, he said, “Do we wait until 2031, the deadline? Probably not.”
The groundwater challenges and associated deadline stem from Colorado’s historic 2002 drought which led to more groundwater pumping than ever before and resulted in a falling water table, decreases in water pressure, and failing wells.
Groundwater declines have been so severe that they’ve affected surface water levels in parts of the valley. In 2004, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring the state to begin regulating the aquifer to make it more sustainable.
Landowners within the Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) responded by forming a groundwater management district known as Subdistrict 1—that was just the first of what will soon be seven approved subdistricts.
Subdistrict 1 set goals and developed a plan of water management in late 2011 that spelled out how to reduce groundwater depletions and recharge the aquifer.
In 2012 they began paying a fee for every acre-foot of water used. That revenue helps pay irrigators who elect to participate in voluntary fallowing programs and other efforts to replenish the river and reduce stress on the aquifer.
And by 2017, irrigators had restored 350,000 acre-feet of water in the aquifer, halfway to their goal. But drought and disaster struck in 2018. With less surface water available and high temperatures, irrigators pumped heavily to maintain their crops. And by September 2018, farmers had lost about 70 percent of the groundwater gains they had worked so hard to recover.
“2018 was extremely frustrating,” said Cleave Simpson, manager of the RGWCD who is also a fourth-generation grower. ”It really kind of set us back to where we were when we started this in 2012.”
It’s not over yet. Some of that groundwater lost in 2018 has been recovered and this year participation in the fallowing program is higher than ever, with more than 13,000 acres enrolled, according to Amber Pacheco who manages the RGWCD’s subdistrict programs—that’s in addition to the 8,800 acres fallowed through the conservation programs that have been running since 2012.
Simpson and others, faced with another severe drought year, are deeply worried about the success of their conservation efforts, but dire times are also boosting motivation to solve the problem, Simpson said.
“There’s a sense of urgency from the board of managers that we’ve got to keep doing more,” Simpson said. “We’ve got to get back what we lost.”
Caitlin Coleman is the Headwaters magazine editor and communications specialist at Water Education Colorado. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Here’s the release from the IBWC:
U.S. Commissioner Jayne Harkins of the International Boundary and Water Commission, United States and Mexico, today reiterated that Mexico must take immediate action to deliver Rio Grande water to the United States to comply with the bilateral 1944 Water Treaty. Under the treaty, Rio Grande water is allotted to the United States in quantities calculated based on cycles of five years. The current cycle ends on October 24, 2020. To meet its international obligations, Mexico must deliver an additional 416,829 acre-feet (514.2 million cubic meters [mcm]) to the United States between now and the end of the cycle.
“Mexican government officials have stated there is enough water stored in the Mexican reservoirs to enable Mexico to meet the needs of Chihuahua farmers during this year’s irrigation season while complying with the treaty. They need to increase their water releases to the United States immediately,” said Commissioner Harkins. “Mexico has failed to implement releases promised earlier and continuing to delay increases the risk of Mexico failing to meet its delivery obligation.”
Commissioner Emily Lindley of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “Mexico has not honored its commitments. Texas farmers, irrigators, municipalities, and industries along the Rio Grande rely on water that should be delivered as laid out in the 1944 Treaty. I echo Commissioner Harkins that it is vital Mexico deliver water immediately to the U.S.”
Mexico has only delivered 1,333,171 acre-feet (1,644 mcm) out of the minimum five- year obligation of 1,750,000 acre-feet (2,159 mcm). The remaining volume yet to be delivered exceeds the 350,000 acre-feet (431.7 mcm) minimum average volume the 1944 Water Treaty requires over an entire year, demonstrating that immediate action is required.
“I want to emphasize that farmers and cities in South Texas rely on this water to get them through the summer,” Commissioner Harkins added.
Under the 1944 Water Treaty, Mexico delivers Rio Grande water to the United States while the United States delivers Colorado River water to Mexico. The United States continues to meet its obligations to deliver Colorado River water and expects Mexico to fulfill its Rio Grande obligations to the United States. The International Boundary and Water Commission is responsible for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico.
From The New York Times (Henry Fountain):
Here at 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide, only vestiges of the winter snowpack remain, scattered white patches that have yet to melt and feed the upper Colorado River, 50 miles away.
That’s normal for mid-June in the Rockies. What’s unusual this year is the speed at which the snow went. And with it went hopes for a drought-free year in the Southwest.
“We had a really warm spring,” said Graham Sexstone, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. “Everything this year has melted really fast.”
The Southwest has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades. The heat and dryness, made worse by climate change, have been so persistent that some researchers say the region is now caught up in a megadrought, like those that scientists who study past climate say occurred here occasionally over the past 1,200 years and lasted 40 years or longer…
Normally, Dr. Sexstone said, measurements of stream flow at gauges in the region would slowly climb to a peak and then drop off gradually as the season progressed.
“This year it seemed like it peaked and then plummeted,” he said.
Becky Bolinger, a drought specialist at Colorado State University and the assistant state climatologist, said the lack of new snow in late spring affected the rate of melting. As snow is exposed to the sun it warms and nears the melting point. If new snow falls, that lowers the temperature, stalling the process. But without any new snow, the melting continues unimpeded…
Early, rapid melting of snowpack has been common recently in the Rio Grande basin, said Shaleene B. Chavarria, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey in New Mexico. Being farther south, it is hotter and more arid than much of the Colorado basin…
It’s not just the basins west of the Continental Divide that have experienced severe drought made worse by warming. A study published in May about the country’s largest river basin, the Upper Missouri, where snowmelt on the eastern side of the divide at Loveland Pass eventually ends up, showed that warming has affected runoff over the last few decades and increased the severity of droughts, including one from 2000 to 2010…
In [the U.S. Drought Monitor’s] latest analysis, the monitoring group reported that the southern half of Colorado, northern and eastern New Mexico, Northern Arizona and nearly all of Utah were in moderate to extreme drought, with varying degrees of water shortages and crop and pasture damage. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its most recent climate forecast, said the drought would likely persist through the summer.
Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was the lead researcher on a study published in April that found that conditions in the Southwest from 2000 to 2018 were comparable to several megadroughts since A.D. 800. It said global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases was a major contributor, turning what would have been a moderate drought into an “emerging megadrought.”
At the time the study was published, Dr. Williams said, there was a possibility that a wet May would “bail 2020 out” and perhaps be the beginning of the end for the drought.
Drought can be complex, a function not only of high temperatures and lack of precipitation but also of factors like humidity, wind and cloud cover. Soil moisture and evaporation of water from the ground surface and from the leaves of vegetation, a process called transpiration, are important.
Dust that settles on snow can have an impact, by absorbing sunlight and warming, which speeds melting. And sublimation, by which a solid (snow) directly becomes a gas (water vapor), bypassing the liquid phase (water), plays a role as well.
But scientists are still learning how these various factors interact, and the relative importance of each. In some cases there is little data to analyze, and much of the research relies on computer models.
There are relatively few direct measurements of soil moisture, for example, even though it can greatly affect runoff as it likely did this year in the Southwest.
Soils were already very dry last fall, Dr. Bolinger said, because the annual late-summer rains in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado largely failed to materialize.
As winter set in, the soil froze, remaining dry while the snow built up on it. Then, once the snow began to melt, the soil had to be replenished first, Dr. Bolinger said.
Dr. Sexstone’s work to better understand snowpack is part of a broader effort within the geological survey to more accurately quantify and forecast runoff, given increasing uncertainty about water supplies in a warming and more drought-prone world.
At Loveland Pass, with a light dusting of snow falling around him, he demonstrated a basic technique used to study snowpack. Pulling a shovel from his backpack, he dug a pit in a patch of snow down to solid ground. In this case the pit was only 3 feet deep, but in midwinter in the mountains they can reach up to 15.
Dr. Sexstone then inserted thermometers at various levels in the side of the pit, and, using a scoop and a scale, took samples of the snow at each level. By weighing each sample he could determine its density and how much water would result when it melted.
Last winter, Dr. Sexstone was digging snow pits as part of development work on a project, the Next Generation Water Observing System, to better measure snowpack and stream flows at sites around the Upper Colorado Basin and, through modeling, improve basin-wide assessments of runoff.
“We’re looking at more intensive monitoring within the basin,” said Suzanne Paschke, who manages the project at the geological survey’s Colorado Water Science Center. Installation of advanced sensors to measure snow and other characteristics like soil moisture is expected to begin next year.
Most current snow measurements come from a network called Snotel, first established in the 1960s. It now includes hundreds of sites around the West.
While the Snotel network provides invaluable data about snow depth and how much water it holds, Dr. Sexstone said, the sites are all below the tree line and the system was developed when much less was known about what affects snowpack.
“When they were developing this network, they wanted to find sites that weren’t influenced by all these other factors like wind,” Dr. Sexstone said. Scientists have since realized that snowpack and runoff are a lot more complicated.
“Now we’re starting to say, OK, how do we account for all this other stuff?” he said.
From The New Mexico Political Report (Kendra Chamberlain):
For the first time in decades, Albuquerque is facing a dry Rio Grande. Despite a nearly-normal snowpack over the winter, that water never made it down into the river this year. Instead, water managers had to release stored water from reservoirs to keep the Rio Grande flowing. Those stores are running out, and some 28 miles of the river south of Albuquerque has already gone dry.
“We’re going to have a flat sandy dry riverbed with a little ribbon of water meandering through the sand very soon,” Fleck said.
It’s not unusual for stretches of the river, especially south of Albuquerque, to go dry in summer months. But as temperatures rise due to climate change, and the region’s climate becomes more arid, it’s likely that we’ll see more and more dry years for the river, even if snowpacks remain at near normal levels.
The Rio Grande is a highly managed river. The water that flows into and is diverted out of it is governed by the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, which dictates how water is managed and distributed between various communities across Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.
In New Mexico, every drop of water that flows through the river is owed to someone. And while the Compact itself is designed to accommodate wetter and drier years, the state has very little wiggle room in how it manages that water in the face of a large, system-scale shift in climate, like we’re beginning to experience now.
Some say now’s the perfect time to rethink water management on the Rio Grande.
“This is not going to work, going forward,” said Jen Pelz, a biologist, attorney and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Communities, as well as the river itself, are going to be in great danger if we keep operating on a year-to-year basis, praying for rain and hoping we’re going to have another 1980. That’s not going to happen under the new climate regime.”
New Mexico is already using more water than it has access to
The Rio Grande Compact is a complex interstate legal agreement between governments and districts that rely on the Rio Grande to supply drinking water and irrigation water to their respective communities. Under the pact, Colorado delivers each year a certain amount of water to New Mexico, and New Mexico, in turn, is required to deliver a certain amount of water to the Elephant Butte Reservoir. That water is then distributed to irrigators in New Mexico and Texas south of the reservoir.
The delivery obligations are based on the amount of precipitation received each year. In dry years, New Mexico has lower delivery obligations to the reservoir, and in wet years, the state has higher delivery obligations. Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the Compact was designed with an eye towards the boom and bust water cycle of the Rio Grande.
“The states that are in the Rio Grande Compact have designed and developed whole operating procedures around wide swings in water supply,” Hamman told NM Political Report. “The Compact is scaled to try to encompass that as best as it can, it functions reasonably well since its inception.”
New Mexico is already out of step with its water supply as determined by the Compact. A 2004 study commissioned by the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered a first thorough look at the state’s water budget since the 1930s. The study found that, given average water flows and average water depletions, New Mexico is short 40,000 acre feet of water each year, on average.
“If you add everything up, according to this study, our uses of the river, plus natural uses that we’re responsible for under the Compact accounting, exceed the average supply by 40,000 acre feet per year,” said Norm Gaume, a retired licensed professional water engineer who formerly served as director of the ISC. Gaume commissioned the study in the 1990s, though it was published after his tenure at the ISC.
“Our uses of water, on average, exceed our average supply. Not in the future, because of climate change, but [in 2004],” he said.
The study has never been updated, but there’s some hope that the state’s water use has actually decreased in the interim — even if just slightly — thanks to the water conservation efforts in the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the Rio Grande’s two largest municipal water users.
“They’ve been very, very successful in their water conservation programs, so their per-capita use is going way down,” said Fleck. He added that the acreage of irrigated land in the Middle Rio Grande is also declining, which may translate into some smaller water savings.
Pelz commended water conservation progress, but noted that even in wet years, the water budget shortfall can be seen in some stretches of the river in southern New Mexico
“Last year, when the river was flush with water because it was an above-average water year, the river still went dry in the San Acacia reach, below the San Acacia diversion dam,” Pelz said. “That’s because we’ve over-allocated our system, and we’re not doing anything to protect the right of the river to have any water.”
Responding to climate change
Meanwhile, climate change is shifting how the region experiences precipitation. And that, water managers say, will likely impact New Mexico’s water future and its ability to meet its delivery obligations year to year.
“We’re entering a period now where there’s a shift in temperatures and precipitation as a result of the climatic changes going on. That can definitely be a compounding factor,” Hamman said. “It creates higher demand for existing crops and vegetation, as well as changes the way snowmelt accumulates and runs off. It’s not only affecting the volumes, it’s affecting the timing. That’s a little different than what we have historically experienced.”
Hamman said the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began implementing what he called adaptation strategies since the mid-1990s. Those include minimizing diversions, maximizing storage and optimizing what water is in the river.
“There’s a bunch of different pieces to that puzzle that we’re working on already,” Hamman said.
But a significant amount of the state’s water budget cannot be controlled by water management. Looking back to the 2004 study, Gaume pointed out that nearly half of Rio Grande water depletion is caused by evaporation and other natural mechanisms, not human activity.
“The natural depletions are not very controllable, and they keep going, even if we don’t have much flow going in,” he said.
Climate change and aridification will likely cause these natural depletions to increase, the effects of which will ripple throughout the communities that rely on water from the Rio Grande.
“What happens when temperatures go up? Evaporation goes up even faster — much faster than temperature, it’s not a linear function at all,” Gaume said. “So reservoir evaporation is going to go way up, evaporation from the bosque and the river is going to go up. We’re not sure what’s going to happen to our supply, but what we do know is that our net supplies are going to go down, because evaporation losses are going to go up.”
What kind of future for the Rio Grande do we want?
Water experts agree there are big conversations to be had around what kind of future New Mexico residents want for the Rio Grande. But experts also agree those conversations haven’t happened yet.
“This is a values question. What does the community value?,” Fleck said. “We do not have in the Middle Rio Grande Valley a management framework where we can even have those conversations about what our community values are. What do we want that river to look like?”
Pelz and WildEarth Guardians have a few ideas. Pelz authored a 2017 report that looked at what she called out-of-the-box thinking about water management on the Rio Grande. It proposes exploring whole-basin approaches to managing the river, rather than the piecemeal management structure that currently exists.
“We’ve been advocating for a long time to have the National Academy of Sciences study this idea — have [people] who don’t have an interest in the basin, who are scientists, look at all the different reservoir authorizations, and the Compact, to see if there are better ways we could operate reservoirs that would help make sure farmers got delivered water, also make sure that there’s water in the river when the environment and species need the water, communities could ensure they have water when they need it. That’s more of a long-term solution,” she said. “These three states have three different laws around allocating water. If the whole basin were managed together, it’d probably be a different story.”
Altering the state’s Rio Grande water management would require renegotiating parts of the Rio Grande Compact, which is something that all three states would need to agree to do. At present, there doesn’t seem to be much support for considering renegotiating any parts of the Compact among the parties.
In an email to NM Political Report, Office of the State Engineer spokesperson Kristina Eckhart said New Mexico isn’t interested in opening up negotiations, given the current litigation between the state and Texas over water.
“Texas mediated a 2008 agreement in the Lower Rio Grande that takes water apportioned to New Mexico by the Compact away from New Mexico, and then in 2013 sued New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court claiming Texas is being harmed. Given those actions, New Mexico sees no reason to renegotiate the Compact at this time,” Eckhart said. She added that there’s currently no drought contingency planning occurring, either.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has just begun work on a Rio Grande River Basin study in New Mexico, which will include “projections and water supply and demand within the basin and analysis of how existing water and power infrastructure and operations will perform in the face of changing water realities,” said Mary Carlson, a spokesperson for the Bureau.
The Bureau partnered with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the ABCWUA, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, as well as tribes, environmental organizations, educational institutions, and community organizations for that study.
The Bureau is also working with the ISC “on the development of forecasting tools to help better project delivery requirements under the Compact, to improve decision-making related to how much water to store upstream, and how much to send down to Elephant Butte for Compact delivery,” she said.
Could the basin study open up an opportunity for the three states to consider coming back to the negotiating table to deal with climate change in the future?
“Potentially,” Hamman said, adding that there are some other aspects of the Compact that need consideration, too.
“There are some definite reservoir regulation issues that need to be looked at, and maybe a whole different idea of net precipitation, if it’s moving towards more of a monsoon-driven system, then a snow melt system, a lot of those kinds of things need to be looked at,” he said. “Once those options are developed, then I think the interest of the other Compact states would increase.”
In the meantime, New Mexicans will have to make do with a sandy Rio Grande this year.
Click here to go to the website.
A science communication tool to bring awareness to recent trends in water availability around the world.
This project is based on and inspired by @ed_hawkins’s awesome #ShowYourStripes global warming awareness-building initiative. Although global water availability has been tracked for a much shorter period of time (only since 2002) compared to temperature, these water availability stripes can help to raise the profile of global water security challenges and complement the #WarmingStripes initiative by bringing attention to the linkages between water availability and climate change.
From The Associated Press (Susan Montoya Bryan) via The Durango Herald:
One of New Mexico’s largest drinking water providers will stop diverting water from the Rio Grande to help prevent the stretch of the river that runs through Albuquerque from going dry this summer, officials said Tuesday.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority said the curtailment is expected to last until the fall as the utility switches to using groundwater exclusively over the summer to provide drinking water to customers in the metro area.
While the river’s dwindling levels aren’t expected to force mandatory restrictions on water use in the Albuquerque area…
Carlos Bustos, the authority’s conservation manager, said water use is up by more than 1 billion gallons over last year. He said that’s not unexpected because 2019 was a wet year and demands were lower…
Officials are blaming poor runoff for the river conditions. While the snowpack was decent going into April, it was essentially gone the next month and very little had made its way down the tributaries and to the river.
Water management and irrigation agencies have been supplementing the river with water from upstream storage to meet demand since the spring.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation started the year with about 20,000 acre-feet of leased water from San Juan-Chama Project to supplement flows for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Agency spokeswoman Mary Carlson said Tuesday they were forced to start releasing that water in April due to the low runoff and are now down to about 12,500 acre-feet for the remainder of the season.
“We’ve leased or are in the process of leasing everything available to use this year,” she said. “We are working closely with our biologists and our partners and attempting to put the limited supply of water available into the river in areas where it’s most beneficial to the silvery minnow.”
Carlson said the monsoon season is going to have to materialize “in a big way” to avoid intermittency or drying in the Albuquerque reach.
The Albuquerque water authority said it will continue to release surface water from Abiquiu reservoir in northern New Mexico to help keep Albuquerque’s stretch wet. The utility is required by the state to cease drinking water diversions when native river flows at the Central Avenue bridge reach 122 cubic feet per second or lower. That’s expected to happen later this summer.
Federal officials say the utility’s move will help take pressure off the river.
As is typical, some stretches of the river further south already are dry.
Some experts have predicted that this summer’s flows could be the worst in decades…
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order June 15 declaring that drought and severe fire conditions exist throughout the state. In addition to the concern over surface water supplies, The order highlighted the fire restrictions put in place by state and federal agencies and called on municipalities to do the same with regards to fireworks ahead of the 4th of July holiday.
The latest federal drought map shows about three-quarters of the state are dealing with some form of drought, with the area along the New Mexico-Colorado border seeing the most extreme conditions. Swaths of moderate to severe drought also are covering parts of northwestern and eastern New Mexico.
While the region is on the verge of the summer rainy season, forecasters have cautioned that this year could see close to or below average rainfall while temperatures will range from slight above to above average.
From the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Conejos Citizen:
In 2015, then-Governor John Hickenlooper signed a momentous document into being — the Colorado Water Plan. At the time, decades of analysis concluded that a gap was widening between the limited supply of water and an increasing demand from users.
This gap in water supply and demand would only grow worse and more insurmountable without decisive action. Simply conserving water wasn’t enough. The drought of 2002 drove home the fact that a decreasing and erratic snowpack would become the norm, wreaking havoc on communities and river systems across the state. Lawmakers, farmers, water managers, and others saw the writing on the wall and determined to be strategic and proactive.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), the government agency tasked with overseeing water supply and management and utilizing technical data and analysis to assist decision-making, were key partners in spearheading the unprecedented strategy. They couldn’t undertake the entire process on their own and looked to the Roundtables for on the ground planning.
Just as in the first BIP process, stakeholders from the Rio Grande Basin are encouraged to participate in subcommittees on each of the five target areas.
This update process will be facilitated by a local expert who has been trained in coordination with Local Experts from other basins by the state’s general contractor for the 2021 Water Plan. The Rio Grande local expert is the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project (RGHRP) staff, with Daniel Boyes as lead expert. The RGHRP was involved in the first BIP and works to improve the health of streams and riparian areas across the San Luis Valley and recently completed Stream Management Plans for the Rio Grande, Conejos River and Saguache Creek.
Boyes and the other RGHRP staff have begun holding meetings to determine project possibilities and data gaps within the five key areas with community members providing valuable input. These meetings will determine what projects, goals, and objectives represent the Rio Grande Basin’s priorities for each of the key areas, providing once again valuable input to the overall state water plan.
With a below average snowpack for 2020 and no guarantee of continuing moisture or increased snow in 2021 or beyond, the Rio Grande Basin will face similar challenges as the rest of the state over the coming year: The creation of subdistricts to meet aquifer sustainability requirements, newly approved well rules and regulations for groundwater use, and the new SLV radar are unique local responses to these challenges. Participating in identifying and prioritizing new projects and goals is a simple way for the community to involve themselves with these crucial water decisions. With the help of the community, Rio Grande water leaders are working diligently to ensure our resources are able to meet needs and continue our San Luis Valley way of life.
The Roundtables, one for each major river basin plus an additional Roundtable serving the Denver metro population, were created in 2004 as a regional answer to address water needs as identified by a variety of stakeholders. All of these partners were needed to become the task force, which created the first-ever Colorado Water Plan.
These five hundred plus pages of graphs, data, photos, and text combined to tell the story of each of Colorado’s major river basins. But more than that, it creates a compass for Colorado’s basins to identify and implement projects in their region that addressed a multitude of issues such as stream flows, reservoir storage capacity, agricultural sustainability, environmental needs, water administration and even education and outreach on water topics. The Colorado Water Plan includes five major areas of water use: Municipal & Industrial, Agriculture, Environment & Recreation, Water Administration and Education & Outreach. Each of these areas affects all the river basins; however, water leaders recognize that the plan could not be a one size fits all effort. Geography, population, tourism, and other factors affect each region differently, so state officials decided to utilize the leadership of local roundtables. The resulting comprehensive state plan was made possible by thousands of hours of donated time from people in each basin who created an individual plan outlining the needs of their region and highlighting potential projects to address those needs. This basin implementation plan process, or BIP, allowed each basin to prioritize projects and informed the larger Water Plan’s goals and objectives. With many projects completed and numerous goals met over the past five years, new ones are needed to answer the increasingly pressing question of how to adequately meet diverse water needs with an ever-dwindling supply. To that end, the Colorado Water Plan is in its first iteration of updates, scheduled for completion in 2021.
For the past two years, CWCB staff has worked with stakeholders in all basins, as well as engineering firms, to complete data analysis through Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs) using updated data and the most up-to-date modeling tools available. These teams created five potential future scenarios facing Coloradans in the next 20-50 years. Each scenario incorporates existing data from the basins regarding current water use coupled with projected water use, population and economic growth, and, in some scenarios, potential impacts of climate change on water supply and use.
These technical updates necessitate an updated Basin Implementation Plan incorporating the modeling and identifying where other data gaps exist. In addition, projects which will address the gaps and meet Basin goals and objectives need to be prioritized for the next five years.
The current Colorado Water Plan can be found at https://www.Colorado.gov/pacific/cowaterplan/plan and the Rio Grande Basin Implementation Plan is online at http://rgbrt.org/rgbip-update/. To get involved or receive information about the current Rio Grande BIP process, please contact Daniel Boyes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any community member from the six counties of the San Luis Valley is encouraged to attend Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s monthly meetings (currently held virtually, with agenda and meeting information available at http://www.rgbrt.org , visit the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable’s Facebook page, or sign up for the quarterly Roundtable newsletter at email@example.com to learn more about upcoming BIP meetings and timelines.
From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Charlie Wertheim):
Precipitation well below normal coupled with above-average temperatures have led to early snowmelt, according to a news release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Streamflow forecasts predict between 72% and 79% of normal for the Colorado Basin, the release says. The forecast covers the period from June 1 through July 31, said Brian Domonkos, Colorado Snow survey supervisor…
As compared to last year, the Colorado Basin has just 15% of the snowpack it had on June 1, 2019…
“Soil moisture can’t be understated as a condition that will affect snowpack. We went into this year’s snowpack with pretty dry soils,” said Jim Pokrandt, director of community affairs for the Colorado River District.
Reservoir storage numbers are much better. The Colorado Basin was at 115% of normal on June 1, with no basins having higher percentages. That’s better than last year, when storage was at 90% on June 1, 2019. The state average for reservoir storage this June 1 was 100%.
“When it comes to water users, the information that talks about reservoir storage, that’s where we have an advantage. We’ll have good reservoir storage for agricultural and other water users to get through this year,” Pokrandt said…
“Not every irrigator has reservoir storage to call upon. Irrigators in Garfield County that depend on run of the river, they’re the ones that will feel the greater effect of the tapering off of snowpack and the acceleration of drought,” Pokrandt said.
A map in the release shows statewide precipitation at just 50% of normal, with the Colorado basin slightly better at 53% of average. The San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins collectively are at the state’s lowest at 24% of average.
Less concerning is data for the water year, which Domonkos said starts Oct. 1. Precipitation statewide for those eight months is 82% of average, with the Colorado basin at 88%.
Precipitation for the first 10 days of June is 100% of normal, which Domonkos said “is still pretty good.”
Nevertheless, the state is suffering from drought.
“The water availability task force is activating the ag[riculture] portion of the state drought plan. It’s an indication that there is drought, and if you look at the U.S. drought monitor as of the 2nd of June a little bit less than 77% of the state is in some kind of drought,” Domonkos said…
“Predictions are we’re going to have warmer temperatures and below-average precipitation through the summer, but you never really know until we get into the monsoonal season and see what happens,” Pokrandt said.
From The Conejos County Citizen (Sylvia Lobato):
Critical fire weather conditions continue over the San Luis Valley. Avoid any activities that may spark a fire. The current Fire Danger rating is High. RGNF is under Stage 2 fire restrictions…
In addition to well below normal precipitation, the National Resource and Conservation Service reports the Colorado mountains have also had warmer than normal temperatures. This combination has led to snowmelt rates that are much faster than normally observed.
In Southern Colorado, where the past winter snowpack reached near normal peak values, this led to snow melting out of SNOTEL snowpack metering sites several weeks earlier than normal. The current snowpack level for the Rio Grande Basin is at 0.00 percent of normal. In northern basins where snowpack was above normal, snowmelt still occurred early but closer to a normal time than in Southern Colorado. This early snowmelt in combination with lower than normal precipitation both have contributed to declines in streamflow forecasts over the last two months.
The lowest streamflow forecasts in the state are in the Rio Grande basin where they average a meager 41 percent of normal. The Arkansas basin spans the gap of north to south with much higher forecasts in the headwaters compared to the much drier southern tributaries.
While the average of current streamflow forecasts in all major basins of Colorado are far well below normal volumes, there are still stark differences between the northern and southern basins. The highest forecast values in the state exist in the North Platte, South Platte and Colorado basins. The average of forecast values in these basins range from 72 to 79 percent of normal volumes. The Gunnison and combined San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan basins both have average forecast values of 55 percent of normal.
From Aspen Public Radio (Alex Hager):
Some portions of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield Counties are experiencing moderate drought because of hotter temperatures and below average precipitation in April and May.
The U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded Aspen and some parts of Pitkin County from “abnormally dry” to “moderate drought,” the second of five levels of drought severity.
In addition to abnormal temperature and precipitation conditions, the Aspen area entered the spring with below-average soil moisture. Drier soils reduce the amount of snowmelt that reaches streams.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be alarmed at,” said Steve Hunter, utilities resource manager for the City of Aspen. “But it’s something we’re watching very closely, due to the fact that we had some of the hottest and driest April and May on record in the south, and we’re not far from that where we sit here in Aspen.”
Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation also took a toll on the area’s snowpack. While the past winter left an average snowpack in the Roaring Fork Watershed, the heat and dryness have caused it to melt away quicker than usual, which could lead to limited water resources over the summer…
The northern part of the state is experiencing normal water conditions, but much of southern Colorado is undergoing either “severe” or “extreme” levels of drought. Gunnison County, directly to the south of Pitkin, is mostly in “severe” condition.
From The Sante Fe New Mexican (Scott Wyland):
The state will pay a total of $2.4 million to two law firms as a seven-year water dispute between New Mexico and Texas inches closer to a trial.
Each law firm received a $1.2 million sole-source contract, which was not open to competitive bidding…
The state Attorney General’s Office, however, said in a legislative newsletter the sole-source contracts were necessary because litigation would be disrupted if new law firms came in at this late stage.
The trial is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2021.
When asked about the hefty fees paid to the Albuquerque and Denver firms, Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general, said they are “some of the best water lawyers and federal court litigators in the country.”
“The trial team is working aggressively to put New Mexico in the best position to prevail at trial,” Baca said in an emailed statement. “Our focus heading to trial is fighting to protect precious water resources for farmers, tribes, and all New Mexico families.”
The U.S. Supreme Court case involves complex legal wrangling but is simple at its heart.
Texas has accused New Mexico of letting farmers pump groundwater for irrigation near the Rio Grande, reducing the river flow and denying Texas its full share of water under [the] 82-year-old [Rio Grande Compact…
The Supreme Court appointed a “special master” to oversee the case.
Two years ago, the special master set deadlines for the legal battle, ordering that discovery of new evidence would end in the summer of 2020 and the case would then go to trial in the fall. The trial since has been bumped to next year.
From the Arizona Department of Water Resources:
After 11 years of service on the Mexico-United States International Boundary and Water Commission, Roberto Salmón Castelo has stepped down from his position as Mexican Commissioner.
A graduate of the University of Arizona with a master of science degree in agricultural economics, Salmón was appointed to the position of Mexico IBWC Commissioner on April 15, 2009.
In his time with the Commission, which has the responsibility for applying the boundary and water treaties between the United States and Mexico, the two nations have taken huge steps forward in assuring that commitments to the primary binational water agreement in the Southwest – the 1944 Mexico-U.S. Water Treaty – were faithfully upheld.
“It was pleasure working with Commissioner Salmon,” said Jayne Harkins, Commissioner, United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission.
“He was visionary and worked to find benefits to both countries on international projects. I wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Thanks to a minute to the Treaty backed by Salmón in 2010, Arizona and the other Basin States were able to participate in binational discussions on Colorado River matters. Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke observed that the personal relationships that developed from those discussions helped pave the way for future binational agreement.
“Commissioner Salmón recognized the value of personal relationships and worked to develop trust among colleagues on both sides of the border,” recalled Buschatzke.
“That work was a key component in successfully negotiating the minutes and managing the Colorado River.”
In November 2012, Salmón joined in San Diego with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other representatives of both countries at an official signing ceremony of Minute 319 to the 1944 Treaty. The ceremony capped three years of work to reach an agreement on a set of cooperative measures for management of the Colorado River system lasting through 2017.
Commissioner Salmón observed at the time that the agreement paved the way for cooperation that can “guarantee sustainability” in the border region, particularly on future water supply for Mexican border communities.
Salmón again was on hand at the U.S. “entry into force” event in September 2017 in Santa Fe, which constituted the final flourish of the intense binational negotiations over Minute 323, the successor update to Minute 319.
Minute 323 established a program of joint cooperative actions to improve Colorado River water management through 2026.
Like Minute 319, the new Minute 323 provides for the U.S. and Mexico to share proportionately in Lower Basin shortage and surplus, and allows Mexico to create water savings in the Colorado River system in the U.S.
The updated agreement also opened up opportunities for U.S. water users to fund conservation programs in Mexico, which in turn create “Intentionally Created Surplus,” or ICS, in Lake Mead. ICS is playing an important role in helping to keep the reservoir from descending to dangerously unstable surface levels.
Salmón’s work on the Commission extended to developments that directly impacted Arizona’s capacity to express its interests in Colorado River matters.
In 2010, he participated in treaty negotiations that produced Minute 317, known as the “Conceptual Framework for U.S. Mexico Discussions on Colorado River Cooperative Actions.” It established a binational process for coordination on Colorado River matters and expressly called for Basin State participation.
Also in 2010, Salmón negotiated with his U.S. counterparts on the enactment of Minute 318, which called for the creation of deferred water deliveries to Mexico after infrastructure damage caused by the 2010 Mexicali earthquake.
Minute 318 allowed Mexico to implement a form of its own ICS, then called “deferred deliveries.” Because Mexico could not beneficially use water as a result of extensive earthquake damage, the water was saved in Lake Mead for Mexico to use in future years.
In an interview with the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center published shortly after his appointment to the Commission in 2009, Salmón hailed the level of cooperation on water issues between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly through the IBWC.
“Although there have been rough times in the relationship, the IBWC has been able to succeed, to the beneﬁt of both countries,” he said.
“(T)here is an accumulated knowledge and methodologies developed for dealing with delicate issues that have worked in the past, and still work in the present.”
Salmón replaced Arturo Herrera who died in a plane crash in late 2008 along with his U.S. counterpart, Carlos Marin, while ﬂying over ﬂooded areas near Ojinaga, Mexico.
Salmón’s experience in water and agriculture is extensive.
Prior to assuming his position with the Commission, he served as Northwest Regional Manager of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Comisión Nacional del Agua), known as CONAGUA, and covering the state of Sonora and part of the state of Chihuahua where the Yaqui and Mayo river basins originate.
His duties with CONAGUA were sweeping. The federal institution deals with all aspects of water in Mexico. Among its many missions, CONAGUA administers water rights, and constructs, manages, operates and maintains reservoirs throughout the country. CONAGUA also manages irrigation districts and units.
The organization also is involved in the extensive negotiations occurring among the many stakeholders and interest groups in Mexico concerned with water issues – tasks that, in later years, would provide great preparation for Salmón’s duties with the Commission.
From American Rivers (Page Buono):
Join us for a two-part miniseries of our podcast series We Are Rivers. We’ll learn more about Stream Management Plans, an innovative planning tool prioritized in Colorado’s Water Plan, from people working with stakeholder groups and communities across Colorado to put them in place.
Water has always been the architect of life in Colorado. Communities have worked within the availability, demands, and constraints of water to engineer lives and livelihoods. Water designs our lives as much by its availability as it does by scarcity—perhaps even more. In 2013, the State of Colorado recognized the impending impacts of rising populations, increasing demand across the state and the West, and a changing climate, then-Governor John Hickenlooper called for a plan to address these issues. He directed the Colorado Water Conservation Board—the government entity tasked with conserving, developing, protecting and managing the state’s water—to work with diverse stakeholders and develop Colorado’s first water plan. You can learn more about the Plan from Episode 6 in our podcast series.
In some ways, Colorado’s Water Plan articulated and formalized ways to meet the needs of agriculture, land use, and storage that were already in place. But it also did something else: for the first time, the Colorado Water Plan called for the consideration and integration of environmental and recreational flow needs. This decision came from growing recognition of the critical role rivers play in local economies, and the immense ecosystem services that healthy, functioning rivers and streams provide for all values—human and environmental. With this in mind, the Water Plan outlined a goal of inspiring community-driven development of Stream Management Plans for 80 percent of locally prioritized rivers and streams.
In the first episode of this miniseries, we hear from Nicole Seltzer, Science and Policy Manager of River Network, who talks us through the fundamentals of the stream management planning process. Holly Loff, Executive Director of Eagle River Watershed Council, shares on-the-ground experiences of a community planning effort along the Eagle River, and Chelsea Congdon-Brundige, a watershed consultant in the Roaring Fork Valley, shares her highlights from a similar but unique effort for the Crystal River.
As you’ll hear in the podcast, a critical component of Stream Management Planning is the diversity of stakeholders and interests at the table; the important and foundational role of science; and the way each Plan is unique to the community that builds it. SMP’s (as they’re often referred to) are really more about process than a final product, and the greatest win is the long-lasting trust inspired through tough but important conversations across values. SMPs aren’t designed to prioritize any one interest, but instead to bring agriculture, the environment, municipal needs, and recreation alongside one another for the best possible solutions for all.
If you’re inspired by this first Episode, and we suspect you will be, make sure to tune in for part 2 (coming 6/1/20) . We’ll hear from some of the same voices and from new ones from the Rio Grande Basin – including Heather Dutton with the San Luis Valley Water Conservancy District and Emma Reesor with Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project – about the groundbreaking and inspiring ways communities are working together to plan for the future of the rivers and streams that bind them, and all of us, together. Join us – and listen in today!
From The Rio Grande Sun (Molly Montgomery):
Beginning in 2021, the Bureau of Reclamation will repair El Vado Dam.
Built in 1935, the dam is one of the only steel faceplated dams in the country. It can store around 200,000 acre-feet of water.
Some of the steel faceplates of the dam have become cracked and bent due to shifts in the land around the dam, wrote Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Specialist Mary Carlson in a March 6 email.
The shifts in land have also caused erosion behind the faceplates and cracks and bending in the plates on the dam’s spillway, she wrote.
Bureau of Reclamation Civil Engineer Carolyn Donnelly discussed the potential effects of these changes at the Fifth Annual Rio Chama Congreso Feb. 29.
“The spillway, some of those face plates, if you walk on it, you can hear it’s kind of hollow underneath and they move, so if we started using that at the full capacity, water could get under those plates, take them out, and then there could be failure of the dam,” Donnelly said. “And luckily there’s not a large population downstream, but for those who are there it would not be a good thing.”
El Vado stores water for irrigation in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which includes six pueblos—Santa Ana, Kewa, Cochiti, San Felipe, Isleta and Sandia.
It also sometimes stores drinking water for cities including Santa Fe and Albuquerque as part of the San Juan-Chama Project.
Carlson wrote that the Bureau of Reclamation is still working out details about how water will be stored and move during the repair, for which the reservoir will be close to empty for at least a year.
From The Prowers Journal (Russ Baldwin):
[Snowpack] in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins [was] near normal this year. That snow was not enough to relieve the on-going drought. Runoff in both basins is expected to be well below normal and looks to be coming early. Warm temperatures and lack of precipitation in April have accelerated the snowmelt. Models indicate the runoff may peak about 2-3 weeks ahead of an average year; the Rio Grande slightly earlier than the Arkansas. Runoff in the Arkansas and Rio Grande basins will be well-below average.
Drought conditions began to develop in the early fall of 2019. Below average rainfall during the summer and into the fall depleted soil moisture and groundwater going into the winter. Those dry soils and groundwater reservoirs are currently absorbing snow melt that would run off in a wetter year.
Forecasts from both the NRCS and the NWS reflected these dry soils and ground water deficits earlier this winter. Water users in the Arkansas River basin are fortunate to have a number of dams available within the system. Snowpack and runoff in 2018-2019 were abundant and some of it remains available in storage.
From OutThereColorado.com (Spencer McKee):
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Colorado’s current snowpack is at just 43 percent of where the snowpack was this time last year and 64 percent of the average for this date, despite reaching a peak snowpack at 103 percent of the norm this season. This low snowpack is due to warm temperatures and a dry spring, which has resulted in a faster melt and less snow…
One spot that’s particularly dry is the Upper Rio Grande Basin, which is at 25 percent of the median snow water equivalent as of May 13. This includes spots like Medano Pass, Wolf Creek Summit, and Hayden Pass. The Arkansas River Basin is also lacking quite a bit of snow – currently at 59 percent of the median snow water equivalent on May 13. The Arkansas River Basin includes areas like Saint Elmo, Glen Cove, and Fremont Pass…
While things do seem quite dry right now around the state, the 2018 snowpack was worse, as seen by the yellow line in the graph below.
From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):
There was a notably wide gap in snowfall totals from the west side of Denver to the east side this winter, with the east side of the city seeing only about half of the snowfall that the west side received. Consider, for example, Wheat Ridge’s approximately 100 inches of snowfall this winter compared to the 48 inches of snow that Brighton received.
To be clear, most winters feature some sort of noticeable gradient between all sides of the Denver metro area. But as evidenced in part by Boulder’s record-breaking snowfall season, this winter favored the east-facing foothills west of Denver in a perhaps slightly unusual way.
For example: Denver generally saw a slightly above average season’s worth of snowfall (57.6 inches at Denver International Airport, and about 71 inches at the Stapleton Airport weather observation site). This was a generally decent-sized winter (30-year average Denver snowfall: about 50 inches) for the immediate Denver area, but it wasn’t off-the-charts for local standards.
But if you push ever-so-slightly west into the west side of Denver and into the first suburbs on the other side of the city line, like Lakewood and Wheat Ridge, and those seasonal snow totals jumped dramatically. Wheat Ridge saw over 100 inches this winter, while Lakewood saw almost 90 inches of seasonal snowfall.
While there’s typically a gap between the east and west sides of Denver, the fact that the west side of the metro area almost doubled the east side’s snowfall is a bit of a wider spread than usual.
“There weren’t a lot of big synoptic storms that were widespread (in producing more evenly-distributed snowfall),” said Scott Entrekin, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder. “Most of the folks on the plains only had 20 to 30 inches of snow, which is a bit below normal out there. We did have some upslope-heavy storms.”
If you stretch out the geography a bit, the gap gets even wider: Colorado’s Eastern Plains saw only about 20 to 30 inches of snow this winter, below average in most cases. Meanwhile, the foothills west of Denver saw as much as 200 inches worth of snowfall, well above the climatological average there.
This was likely due to a high number of snowstorms that primarily pushed in easterly winds, or ones that strongly favor the foothills and the west side of the Denver area. Because elevation begins its sharp climb just west of Denver, easterly winds are forced to climb with the terrain as well. When air rises, it condenses into moisture…
Traditionally, the wider snowfall gap comes between the south side of the metro area and the rest of the city. The Palmer Divide, the mountainous area between Denver and Colorado Springs that rises up to 7,000 feet in elevation, is typically one of the more significant areas of snowfall across the metro area. The Palmer Divide’s elevation difference and geography is why places like Castle Rock (83.5 inches of snow this winter) and Sedalia (about 80 inches) often wind up with some of the higher seasonal totals over the course of a full winter.
The divide, however, usually relies on a bit more of a northerly component to the winds to bring in both colder and more upslope-dominant winds that’ll rise more efficiently against the east-west orientated range.
But this winter, those Palmer Divide areas actually saw slightly less snowfall than places like Wheat Ridge and Lakewood, and Castle Rock barely half of Boulder’s 152 inches of seasonal snowfall. That’s far from unheard of, but it certainly is a bit unusual, and yet another indicator of the huge snow season that the foothills specifically had.
That led to a big difference in snowfall totals over just a few miles across the Denver area this winter, including slightly below average seasonal amounts for areas just north of the city.
From New Mexico in Focus (Laura Paskus):
This spring, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is running at about 20 percent of its historic average—even though snowpack in the watershed was close to average last fall and into February. Conditions won’t get much better: Peak snowmelt occurred last week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“This year was more along the lines of what I anticipate for the future, to happen more often,” says David Gutzler, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of New Mexico. Gutzler has been studying climate change in the southwestern United States for decades.
Increasingly warm conditions play out in predictable ways in the arid Southwest. That includes having less water in rivers, even when the region isn’t necessarily mired in drought, experiencing a deficit in snowpack or rainfall.
“You get snow in the winter when it’s really cold, but then things get warm and dry—which is the long-term outlook for springtime in the Southwest—and the snow just melts away faster than our historical statistics would suggest,” Gutzler says of this year’s conditions.
“This is more like a global warming-style of a low streamflow year, as opposed to a drought year [like 2018] that started off bad and stayed warm, and was just bad for the whole winter.”
Two years ago, then-UNM graduate student Shaleene Chavarria published her research with Gutzler about declining snowmelt and streamflows in the Rio Grande. In that peer-reviewed study, she looked at annual and monthly changes in climate variables and streamflow volume in the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado between 1958 and 2015. She found that flows are declining in March, April, and May.
Chavarria, a hydrologist, saw something else in the records: Snowpack in the Rio Grande watershed is decreasing. And it’s melting earlier.
That’s definitely playing out again this year.
Looking at the data, Chavarria notes that in 2018 and 2020, snowpack melted out about a month earlier than it normally did in the past. “This is something we address in the paper, and I think it’s interesting and scary to see it happening,” she wrote in an email to NMPBS…
The changes in the timing of spring runoff and in the amount of water flowing within the banks of the Rio Grande affect farmers and cities. They also affect the river’s ecosystem—including the cottonwood bosque—and the species that depend upon its waters and cycles.
Already, according to Carolyn Donnelly with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the water management agency has released about 4,000 acre feet of water from upstream reservoirs to prevent riverbed drying—and it plans to release supplemental water again within the week.
When the Natural Resources Conservation Service released its final May streamflow this week, the numbers were “pretty grim,” says Reclamation spokesperson Mary Carlson.
“In March, we were looking at a runoff that was near average. But that just didn’t materialize,” Carlson says. “We will continue to coordinate closely with our water operations partners to ensure that every drop of the supply that we do have will be used in the most beneficial way.”
She adds that New Mexico will likely end up under Article VII restrictions by the middle of June.
Under that provision of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, New Mexico is only allowed to store water in upstream reservoirs when levels in Elephant Butte Reservoir are above a certain threshold. With little water flowing into that reservoir this year, the state won’t be able to store waters upstream—and Elephant Butte’s levels will keep dropping, too.
The bureau anticipates Elephant Butte’s levels will drop close to its 2018 historic lows, when the reservoir was at just three percent of capacity. (The reservoir, which was built to hold two million acre feet of water, is about 25 percent full this week. Water stored there is allocated to farmers in southern New Mexico and Texas)
Reclamation also anticipates that the Middle Rio Grande will dry within the next month, beginning within Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio…
For decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with federal, state, tribal, and local partners, has tried to keep the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow from going extinct. The two-inch long fish was once one of the river’s most abundant. But by the 1990s, its population had plummeted, earning it the dubious distinction of requiring federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Some of those efforts include releasing water to keep the river flowing longer, and also working with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to release water “spikes” when the minnows are spawning.
When the Middle Rio Grande does dry, as it has many summers since the 1990s, biologists end up in the riverbed, trying to salvage what live minnows they can find. They scoop the fish from pools and puddles, then transport them to sections of the river where flows are high enough to possibly sustain the tiny fish.
Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Thomas Archdeacon anticipates the river will dry around Memorial Day. When that starts happening, biologists will slog through the muddy—and then sandy—riverbed, seeking out the endangered fish.
From The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project via The Valley Courier:
Over the past several years, the Restoration Project has worked with five ditch companies and diverse stakeholders to improve irrigation infrastructure on the Rio Grande between Alamosa and Del Norte, while also benefiting the river as a whole. The project’s founding document, the 2001 Study, found that changes in hydrology and aging, failing diversion structures were causing sediment deposition, erosion, loss of riparian habitat, and inefficient diversion of water.
The Five Ditches Project addressed these issues by replacing diversion dams and head-gates for five ditches and restoring surrounding streambanks. These efforts have resulted in a multitude of benefits, including improved diversion efficiency and irrigation operations, enhanced fish and wildlife habitat, reduced erosion and increased community safety. As the Five Ditches Project wraps up, those involved wanted to once again acknowledge the incredible collaboration that made this project possible and give an overview of everything that has been accomplished together.
If you haven’t seen it already, check out the film made by Moxiecran Media about the Five Ditches Project…
Rio Grande #2
Ditch The Rio Grande #2 Ditch irrigates 250 acres northeast of Del Norte. It suffered from an inefficient diversion dam and high maintenance due to trash and sediment. In Winter 2017, the diversion dam and headgate were removed and replaced with a fish-passable stacked rock cross vain diversion structure and a steel headgate. The surrounding channel and streambanks were also reshaped and stabilized, and aquatic and riparian habitat improvements and a rock deflector were added.
Consolidated and Pace Ditches
The Consolidated Ditch irrigates 6,849 acres, and had a crumbling, century-old concrete headgate with a difficult to maintain push-up diversion dam. To remedy these issues, the headgate was replaced with a new concrete structure with trash rack and automation, and a new concrete diversion dam was constructed featuring a fish ladder and two Obermeyer gates for fine control and sediment flushing. The adjacent banks have also been reshaped and revegetated, improving habitat for wildlife and channel stability. The Pace Ditch is a smaller diversion irrigating 107 acres, and is located directly adjacent to the Consolidated Ditch. Both ditches share the new diversion dam, and the Pace headgate was replaced at the same time as the Consolidated headgate, with a manual slide gate and pipe to convey water to the ditch. San Luis Valley Canal The San Luis Valley Canal provides water for 20,200 irrigated acres. Its headgate was redesigned to replace the existing hundred-year-old structure. Over time the river had moved away from the headgate structure, resulting in a static pool in front of the headgate that caused sediment deposition. The new concrete headgate is situated closer to the river and features automated gates. The banks were reshaped around the new structure, and a severely eroding bend in the vicinity of the diversion was reshaped, stabilized, and revegetated. The project also includes a trash deflector and rock weir check structure.
Supplying water to 8,500 acres, the Centennial Ditch had a degraded concrete diversion that was dangerous to maintain. In order to divert water at certain flows, the ditch rider would have to wade into the river to put boards across the dam and raise the water level. In Winter 2017, the old diversion structure was removed and replaced with a grouted rock dam. The new structure also includes an Obermeyer gate in the low flow channel for fine control and sediment flushing. By request from CPW, the dam is a fish barrier to prevent the passage of nonnative species. Nearby streambanks were also stabilized.
Thanks again to each of the five ditch partners!
Centennial Irrigating Ditch Company
Consolidated Ditch and Headgate Company
Cooley & Sons Excavating
Rio Grande #2 Ditch Shareholders
San Luis Valley Canal Company National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)
Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW)
The Five Ditches Project made great strides toward meeting agricultural, environmental, and recreational needs on the Rio Grande, however aging infrastructure and bank erosion is still a significant challenge across the Rio Grande headwaters. Your support will allow them to continue working with irrigators, landowners, and partners on the Rio Grande and Conejos River to complete infrastructure improvement and river restoration projects!
From Colorado Politics (Michael Karlik):
The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday upheld an agreement that would allow a water conservation subdistrict in Southern Colorado to import water to the Rio Grande and use the entirety of its own imported water under long-standing legal doctrine.
The Closed Basin is a watershed in the San Luis Valley with a physical separation between itself and the Rio Grande. Surface water, therefore, does not flow into the river, and is imported through canals. However, a study revealed that pumping from an underground aquifer in the Closed Basin was causing depletion to the waters of the Rio Grande.
In 2010, a water court judge approved a plan for the Special Improvement District No. 1 of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District that proposed a way to restore river flows otherwise lost to irrigation-related pumping. The subdistrict would have to replace the river depletions, and consequently it contracted with Santa Maria Reservoir Company to lease water from its supply in two reservoirs.
The company, however, had to amend its bylaws to allow for the water to go toward replacement of flows, not just for irrigation. The idea was to release water from a reservoir and have it flow down the Rio Grande, with no diversions for irrigation to the Closed Basin.
By April 2016, all affected parties had withdrawn objections except for one rancher, Jim Warner. He owned property in the Closed Basin and needed the subsurface water created as a byproduct of the importation to stay at a certain level. Warner opposed the change out of a suspicion that he could no longer use flood irrigation of his hay crops.
During the trial, SMRC argued that its importation scheme would not harm other water users in the Closed Basin. Warner did not provide any evidence to support his claim, as well as for his allegation that the Closed Basin and the Rio Grande were not separate water systems after all.
The water court found acceptable the arrangement for SMRC to replenish the Rio Grande and for the subdistrict to use the entirety of its imported water into the Closed Basin for its own irrigation purposes…
Writing for the Supreme Court, Justice Carlos A. Samour Jr. found that the water court was correct to approve the Closed Basin arrangement based on cases as early as 1907.
“We have repeatedly said that when water is introduced into a stream system from an unconnected stream system, it is imported,” he wrote. There was plainly a divide between the Closed Basin and the river, and the SMRC’s actions would not cause Warner injury.
Here’s the release from the Bureau of Reclamation (Mary Carlson):
On the heels of a banner water year on the Rio Grande, water managers are again preparing to manage through drought as a below average runoff is expected this spring based on the current snowpack in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande today showing below average runoff. While the amount of water in the snowpack (snow water equivalent) measured in the mountains feeding the river was close to average in March, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) warns that runoff may be below average as a result of low soil moisture levels resulting from a dry fall in 2019.
At the end of March, snow water equivalent was 81 percent of average for the Rio Chama Basin, 93 percent of average for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 105 percent for the Sangre de Cristos, and 57 percent for the Jemez. Based on these values, the NRCS April streamflow forecast predicts that Rio Chama flow into El Vado Reservoir will be 56 percent of average with an inflow of about 125,000 acre-feet of water. Water is stored in El Vado for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and to meet the needs of the Six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos.
Rio Grande Project storage is currently about 600,000 acre-feet and peaked at about 650,000 acre-feet at the beginning of March before declining as irrigation releases started. The forecast shows that combined usable project storage in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs is likely to fall below 400,000 acre-feet in late June. This triggers restrictions under the Rio Grande Compact that limit storage in upstream reservoirs such as El Vado.
The Annual Operating Plan public meetings were held by WebEx this year in accordance with federal and state health guidelines. Those who were not able to attend the meetings can still view the presentation on Reclamation’s website at https://www.usbr.gov/uc/albuq/water/aop/index.html or contact Mary Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org.