More Than #ClimateChange Threatens Iconic Rio Grande — Wild Earth Guardians

Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

As temperatures in Albuquerque climb to triple digits, the Rio Grande’s flows continue to recede leaving vast islands and sandy channels where the mighty river once roamed. The contrast between conditions this year and last year is stark.

In 2017, the April forecast for the Rio Grande at the Otowi Gauge was 128 percent of average; this year it is 20. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s maps by Brian Fuchs show New Mexico going from only about a quarter of the state in abnormally or moderately dry conditions in June of 2017 to the majority of the state in extreme or exceptional drought this year.

West Drought Monitor September 25, 2018.

These conditions are driving the early low flows in the Basin, but are not the sole cause of the crisis as seems to be the nationwide narrative.

“Climate change is exposing cracks in western water policy and is shining a spotlight on the unsustainable allocation of water from our rivers and streams,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The emerging disaster on the Rio Grande this year comes from archaic water policies, lack of accountability by the states, and water managers acting like its business as usual despite the dire stream flow conditions.”

Three main flaws in water policy and enforcement are driving the situation this year. First, the Rio Grande Compact—an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that sought in 1938 to equitably allocate the waters of the Rio Grande between the states–is operating in dry years to magnify the climate changed induced flow declines. When flows are above average (128 percent), like in 2017, Colorado’s delivery obligations to downstream states roughly mimic the flows at the index gauge.

However, when flows cease to reach a threshold of about 4,000 cubic feet per second, the delivery obligation of Colorado ceases entirely meaning Colorado water users can take every last drop and be entirely within the terms of the compact.

The Rio Grande Compact, like other western water agreements, is based on data from an unrepresentative wet period in the historical record; therefore, the allocation system is far from equitable.

Second, the State of New Mexico provides no leadership or accountability to ensure water users in the state are only using what they need. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, for example, requested a permit in 1925 to irrigate over 100,000 acres in the Middle Rio Grande valley from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Dam. The District, however, has not (90 years later) ever proven that it has irrigated the acreage contemplated in the permit, nor that it needs the water it has claimed. This is a fundamental requirement under the New Mexico Constitution that is being blatantly disregarded.

Finally, the District—the entity that delivers water to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande—just last week finally limited its diversions to the more senior users. Despite anticipated flows of 20 percent of average, the District provided water to the most junior users—those that do not have any claim to water—from March 1 to June 12 (104 days).

“These institutional agreements and policies not only threaten the health of the river, but also put the most senior users’ ability to irrigate to the end of the season at risk,” added Pelz. “The wild west days are over and climate change is exposing these flawed choices. It’s time to find a new sustainable path forward.”

WildEarth Guardians works to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Our Rio Grande: America’s Great River campaign seeks to provide the Rio Grande with a right to its own water and to reform western water policy for a sustainable future for this icon.

A dry #RioGrande in springtime isn’t normal. But it will be — New Mexico Political Report #ActOnClimate

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

From the New Mexico Political Report (Laura Paskus):

In early April, when the Middle Rio Grande should have been rushing with snowmelt, New Mexico’s largest river dried. It started through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, spreading to more than 20 miles by now. The Albuquerque stretch may dry come June or July, which would mean some 120 miles dry altogether this summer.

Already, if you live in Albuquerque, you may have peered over the bridges and seen sandbars and slow water this spring. Even in places like Velarde or Española, historically low flows are trickling through your town, the result of not enough snow in the mountains this winter.

To see this happening in spring is shocking. But we shouldn’t be surprised. We knew this could happen. Just like we knew the climate was changing.

We know, for example, that warming makes an arid climate even drier.

On average, our snowpack is decreasing, moving north and melting earlier. That leads to less water in the rivers when we need it—spring and early summer before monsoons arrive.

And even when there is snow, warmer temperatures transform more of it to water vapor before it can liquefy its way into the watershed. Warming dries out soils and sends more dust into the air. That’s bad news, both for breathing creatures and snowpack, as topsoil-coated snowpack melts faster.

Warming means less water in rivers and reservoirs, and also less water underground.

Groundwater isn’t being recharged through snowmelt and streamflows, and we’re pumping more to compensate for the lack of surface water. New Mexicans survived the drought of the 1950s by pumping groundwater when the rivers slowed and the rains failed to fall. Since then, we’ve kept pumping, depleting aquifers and groundwater supplies.

Warmer, drier conditions also mean bigger, hotter wildfires and a longer wildfire season.

And after the fires, some of our forests can’t regenerate. Where they once thrived, ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests can’t survive because it’s too warm—not to mention dry. In some places, even hardy junipers are drying out and dying off.

Before the Dome Fire and then Las Conchas, which burned here in the Jemez Mountains seven years ago, this was a dense conifer forest. Today, the climate is too warm for those trees to return.

In some places across this 30,000-acre burn scar, aspens and locust trees are sprouting where firs used to grow. In other places, the ground remains bare. When rains fall here, floods drive torrents of mud, ash and debris downstream.

Climate change means our forests change; our rivers and our grasslands change. It means our cities and small towns, farms and orchards change.

And we’ve known this for a long time.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s science advisers told him humans were “unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment” by burning within a few generations fossil fuels that had accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. The carbon dioxide humans were injecting into the atmosphere would cause changes, they wrote, that would harm human beings.

In 1988, the New York Times reported on its front page that the Earth was warming. NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress, urging action to cut carbon emissions.

We knew what was happening.

In 2005, New Mexico released a report on the potential effects of climate change on the state. The 51-page summary report laid out a range of problems and potential solutions, related to everything from water and infrastructure to public health, wildfire and environmental justice.

New Mexicans then elected a governor who ended all state programs under her authority related to climate change.

Ten years later, scientists, economists and hydrologists worked together to understand New Mexico’s drought vulnerabilities. They handed off a report to the legislature that revealed problems with groundwater supplies in the Lower Rio Grande.

Our state Legislature didn’t renew their funding.

For decades, there have been scientific papers, government reports, planning documents, economic studies and international agreements.

We knew what was going to happen.

And yet, here we are.

No matter what you might hear from certain voices, this drying in the Middle Rio Grande is not normal for springtime.

That’s not to say that the river here has never dried in the spring, since records have been kept or before.

But just because something has happened before doesn’t mean it’s normal.

As it continues happening—as a river that supports millions of people in three states and two countries continues to dry—we all need to pay attention.

We also need to understand what biological, chemical and hydrological impacts are occurring, says Clifford Dahm, professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology and an expert on intermittent and ephemeral rivers.

“The aquatic creatures that live in the river, as it’s drying and staying dry longer, are going to change,” he said. “There will be a shift towards completely different communities of fish, algae, invertebrates and trees.”

Right now, we don’t know how quickly those shifts will occur, which species will survive, die or recover. But when the water table drops to more than ten feet below the surface, we do know cottonwood trees struggle and then die, Dahm said.

Right now, we know that in the Rio Grande Basin, warming will lead to a four to fourteen percent reduction in flow by the 2030s and an eight to 29 percent reduction by the 2080s.

On the Colorado River—which New Mexico also relies upon—scientists have predicted a 20 to 30 percent decrease in flows by 2050. And a 35 to 55 percent decrease by the end of the century.

Even on the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, warming will decrease flows by about 5 to ten percent due to decreasing snowmelt runoff.

#Texas v. #NewMexico and #Colorado update

Map of the Rio Grande watershed, showing the Rio Chama joining the Rio Grande near Santa Fe. Graphic credit WikiMedia.

From the Colorado Attorney General’s office via the Valley Courier:

[On Monday, January 8, 2018], Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman’s office presented arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, No. 141, Original, to protect the authority and jurisdiction of the Western States to manage water rights within their own borders and across state lines in cooperation with neighboring state officials.

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court after Texas sued New Mexico over a dispute regarding water in the Rio Grande Basin. Colorado, Texas and New Mexico are all parties to the Rio Grande Compact, an agreement that since 1938 has regulated the interstate apportionment of the waters of the Rio Grande. Texas did not make any claims against Colorado, but because Colorado is a party to the Compact, Colorado was also included in the case.

While Texas’s claims against New Mexico were pending, the U.S. government attempted to independently sue the State of New Mexico under the Rio Grande Compact. The Supreme Court invited the State of Colorado to present arguments on whether the United States has a right to sue a State under an interstate water compact, despite not being a party to it.

“Arguments over water rights have been going on since the beginning of statehood, but the authority to manage this critically important natural resource has always belonged first and foremost to the States,” said Attorney General Coffman. “We cannot allow the federal government to encroach on our rights and interfere with our ability to manage water resources on equal footing with our Sister States.”

Colorado Solicitor General Fred Yarger argued on behalf of the State, explaining that the federal government does not have a right to sue New Mexico under the Rio Grande Compact. The United States is not a party to the Compact, he explained, and the authority, jurisdiction and responsibility to manage the water of the Rio Grande lies with the States. Solicitor General Yarger argued that allowing the federal government to sue under the Compact to which it is not a party would set a very concerning precedent, harming the ability of States to work together to solve water disputes cooperatively, without federal government intrusion.