New Mexico water agencies are slowly piecing together a regulatory puzzle in order to store Rio Grande water in Abiquiú Reservoir for middle valley irrigation this summer as El Vado Dam is repaired. But an objection from Texas water managers could interfere with the reservoir’s use for non-pueblo irrigators. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the northern New Mexico reservoir on the Rio Chama. Nabil Shafike, the Army Corps Albuquerque District’s water management chief, said Abiquiu was once authorized only to store Colorado River Basin water that is diverted into the Rio Grande Basin with a series of tunnels and dams for the San Juan-Chama Project.
“All the Corps reservoirs – Abiquiú, Cochiti, Galisteo and Jemez Canyon – work as one unit to protect the middle valley from flood,” Shafike said. “Any storing of native (Rio Grande) water would require a deviation from the current operation.”
The agency is weighing two potential changes at Abiquiu:
• A request from the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission to store up to 45,000 acre-feet, or 14.6 billion gallons, of Rio Grande water in Abiquiú each year for release later in the season to meet middle Rio Grande irrigation demand.
• A request from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to store up to 20,000 acre-feet, or 6.5 billion gallons, of Rio Grande water in Abiquiú each year to meet direct flow right for the six middle Rio Grande pueblos of Isleta, Sandia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Santo Domingo and Cochiti.
The Army Corps could approve both storage plans or may choose only one.
Members of the Rio de Chama Acequia Association (RCAA) are adamant about continuing the repartimento – the traditional way of sharing water in New Mexico. They want their acequia parciantes to be treated like all the other contractors in the San Juan-Chama River Project and they want to be able to store water in Abiquiu Lake.
The Los Alamos Reporter recently sat down with the officers of the association to discuss the issues they are facing and the solutions they propose. RCAA chair Darel Madrid explained how in the 1960s, water was diverted from the Little Navajo river in Colorado to build up water in the Rio Grande through the San Juan-Chama River Project. He said most of that water streamed through a tunnel under the mountains and into Heron Reservoir.
“Ours is the only river system in the area that has foreign water running through it. Our water rights are tied to the native water rights of the Rio Chama basin. With climate change, we’re getting less and less snowpack. We’re getting warmer springs and all the melt-off is running through our acequia system before we are ready to use it,” Madrid said. “In our climate down here, the growing season usually starts the latter part of May or in June and continues into October. This water is melting off earlier and it’s passing through our system in March and early April. It leaves us in a bind.”
Madrid explained that because the RCAA water rights are tied to the Rio Chama water, only a sliver of the water that you see running through their system is actually their water.
“When people see all this water flowing through the system, they don’t realize that only a portion of that water is our water. We have approximately 22 acequias from below the dam that run from the Trujillo-Abeyta ditch, which is the northern-most, to the Salazar Ditch, which is the last one to receive water,” he said.
The foreign water that’s running through the system is owned mostly by contractors of the original San Juan–Chama River Project including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District which takes care of everybody from Cochiti all the way down to Socorro, and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. There are also minor contractors like the County of Los Alamos, the City of Espanola, the Village of Taos, and the City of Santa Fe – all of whom bought into the project in the 60s…
For many years there was less of a drought situation in the region so there was plenty of water for everybody, he said…
“When the Rio Grande Compact was established in the late 20s or 30s, none of the RCAA acequias were invited to the table. They didn’t have a voice in those discussions at all. The parciantes were busy being farmers and were not organized. The same thing happened during the San Juan-Chama River Project. For all that we can tell, we weren’t invited to the table and all these decisions were made without our participation. When all was said and done we were left with all these rules and regulations that we have to abide by so it’s almost like taxation without representation,” Madrid said.
He noted that regulations for the acequias are all set through court orders with the State Engineer’s Office having the most authority…
The 22 RCAA ditches have the oldest priority dates for rights to the water with some of them going back to the 1600s. Madrid believes those are probably the oldest water rights in the entire nation, second only to Native Americans. The ditch behind his home has been in continual use for more than 400 years. Families of others on the board have been irrigating for hundreds of years in the area.
RCAA Treasurer Carlos Salazar said RCAA wants to find a way to store its water so that it doesn’t have to buy water and believes this would require federal legislation because the dams were constructed with federal funds. The Association hopes that the congressional delegation will help them to find a way to store their native water because it comes from their ancestral lands. Because the water can’t be stored, half of any water that flows past the Otowi Bridge near the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in the spring goes to Texas.
All the RCAA acequias are metered by the state engineer. Their diversion is measured, but one of the big debates RCAA has with the state engineer is that not all of it is consumed and the state charges them for all of the diversion and doesn’t credit them for any return flow. Another burden the RCAA has to bear is that its member acequias are saddled with all the costs for the operation and maintenance…
The RCAA believes all diversion levels should be increased by 30 percent but they would need to invest in return flow measurement to accomplish that and it would take $1,000 per ditch, a total of about $54,000 to accomplish that.
Seaman noted that the RCAA is simply trying to continue the tradition of the acequias.
“To me, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed every citizen all these rights and we don’t see it happening now with this adjudication of water to the Rio Grande and the City of Albuquerque and our neighbors there on Heron Reservoir. All that imported water – where were the acequias?” Salazar said. “I think we should be treated fairly. Our rights pre-date all of them and we should be given an opportunity to store water even if we have to pay for the storage.”
The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) board met on Monday, Aug.16, to hear a report, among other business, from the board’s attorney, Jeff Kane, on the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) intent to file two applications for water rights.
According to agenda information posted on the SJWCD website, the two water rights applications are for transmountain diversions to the Rio Grande River basin from a tributary of Wolfe Creek. (Note: This spelling of Wolfe Creek is what is found in the BLM’s original application for water rights.) This is a tributary to the West Fork of the San Juan River.
These two applications could mean the diversion of up to 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water.
The BLM stated in its applications that the diversion of the water would be to support wildlife management and wetlands habitat at the BLM’s Blanca Wetlands Area and South San Luis Lakes Area.
According to the memorandum presented to the board by Kane, this means that any authorization of this type of diversion causes 100 percent depletion to the originating stream basin. The water that would be diverted under this water rights application would then not be available to support any uses or habitats in the San Juan River or its
The BLM is requesting a change in the places and types of use of the already existing 7 cfs of the Treasure Pass Ditch water right. This water right was purchased in 2019. This current agreement calls for a 1922 priority for the irrigation of 80 acres. The new water rights application by the BLM asks for 13 cfs for the Treasure Pass Ditch and for the right to authorize the BLM to store and deliver water from the Treasure Pass Ditch through several reservoirs in the Rio Grande Basin for support use to the wetlands in the San Luis Valley.
The BLM is also seeking flexibility in approval so it can use the water it wants to divert from the Treasure Pass Ditch in the Rio Grande Basin in a variety of ways, according to Kane.
Kane’s report to the board states, “the applications do not limit the ultimate use of diverted water to support wetlands and wildlife.”
The BLM has the burden of proof when making a request for water rights changes. In a request for a change of water rights, the applicant must prove that the request will not cause an increase in use of requested water as compared in amount, time and place to what has been historically used, according to the memorandum presented by Kane.
A request for an exchange of water rights is when proof is required of the applicant that the request will not harm or impede other water rights and can be applied, Kane’s memorandum explains. A request for a new water right requires the applicant to provide proof that the water to be used will only be beneficial and that there is actually water available to be diverted.
As Kane presented his report on the BLM applications to the board, he noted that both the board and its constituents could be adversely affected in many ways.
The ability of the district to divert and store water under existing water rights or future appropriations considering the diverting water from the Treasure Pass Ditch would not only reduce flows in the San Juan River, but also reduce the water available for Dry Gulch Reservoir, he suggested.
The report also states that the habitat in the tributaries of the San Juan River may also be impacted. The BLM’s applications could also affect the district’s constituents’ efforts to divert and use water if the event a Colorado Compact call were to arise.
The Colorado Compact call is the need to reduce the increasing risk of a compact-driven curtailment which could result in cutting of water to users across the upper basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, Kane reported to the SJWCD board.
Kane also noted that the San Juan-Chama Project is currently diverting an average of 110,000 acre feet a year from the San Juan River to the Rio Grande Basin and the BLM is proposing to divert more water from the Wolfe Creek tribu- tary than at any time in history.
Kane recommended that the board file statements of opposition to the BLM’s applications.
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.”
In response to decreasing tributary flows, the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled an increase in the release from Navajo Dam from 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 350 cfs on Saturday, November 21st, starting at 4:00 AM. Releases are made for the authorized purposes of the Navajo Unit, and to attempt to maintain a target base flow through the endangered fish critical habitat reach of the San Juan River (Farmington to Lake Powell).
The San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program recommends a target base flow of between 500 cfs and 1,000 cfs through the critical habitat area. The target base flow is calculated as the weekly average of gaged flows throughout the critical habitat area from Farmington to Lake Powell.
Three agencies will use water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to protect Rio Grande silvery minnow habitat this fall.
On Wednesday, the water authority approved a lease of up to 7,000 acre-feet, or about 2.9 billion gallons, of its San Juan-Chama water to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at a cost not to exceed $700,000.
The San Juan-Chama project uses a series of tunnels and reservoirs to route Colorado River water into the Rio Grande Basin. Several cities, counties, pueblos and irrigation districts rely on the project for drinking water and agriculture.
The Bureau of Reclamation will pay $350,000 for the water. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District contributed $250,000 to the lease and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission contributed $100,000…
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a new biological opinion regarding water management and endangered and threatened species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Rio Grande Silvery Minnow via Wikipedia
Yellow-billed cuckoos have nearly been extirpated from the western U.S. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.
Southwestern Willow flycatcher
Water agencies now manage the river to improve fish densities, but are not required to maintain certain river flow targets.
This year’s drought and minimal runoff have left water agencies scrambling to supply water to farmers and fish.
The MRGCD used 10,000 acre-feet from the water authority in June. The irrigation district had “repaid” that water to ABCWUA in late 2019 as a payment for a water loan from the early 2000s. But the district was forced to ask for the water payment back after running out of storage water.
Another release of stored water from El Vado Reservoir in July helped extend the irrigation season by nearly three months…
Under the lease, the water can be released from Abiquiu Reservoir through the end of 2022. Revenue from the lease will help fund the water authority’s program to plan for future water supply and demand.
The water authority has a contract with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for about 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water each year – making it the largest user of the project.
FromThe 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.”
A new injection well built by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority will pump treated river water back into the aquifer for future use in the metro area. The $2 million well, built at the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Treatment Plant in north Albuquerque, is key to the city’s aquifer storage and recovery plan.
Project manager Diane Agnew said the well, which is the first of its kind in the city, is a “success for Albuquerque’s water sustainability.”
“This is like a ‘water savings account’ that builds up over time,” she said. “The injection well gives us an alternate source to meet our long-term water demand. It lets us take (treated) San Juan-Chama water and store it in the aquifer, where it won’t evaporate.”
To access the stored aquifer water, the new well pumps can be “flipped” from injection to extraction.
The project expands on the city’s efforts to recharge the aquifer and address long-term water demand.
Each winter, San Juan-Chama water is released into the Bear Canyon Arroyo. That water infiltrates the ground and eventually ends up in the aquifer.
Agnew said the Bear Canyon setup takes advantage of the arroyo’s natural recharge mechanism, but the water may evaporate before it seeps into the ground, and it can take as long as six weeks to reach the aquifer.
The new injection well can send 3,000 gallons of water a minute directly into the aquifer 1,200 feet below the well site, where it can be stored without risk of evaporation. Injected well water reaches groundwater in just a few days…
As with the arroyo project, water will be injected at the well site from October to March, when water demand is lower.
The water authority has worked with the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources to identify other areas in the city which would be optimal for future aquifer injection wells.
Albuquerque’s shift away from pumping groundwater has spurred recovery of the aquifer underneath the city.
A report released last year by the U.S. Geological Survey showed city groundwater withdrawals had dropped by 67% from 2008 to 2016. Aquifer levels in some parts of Albuquerque rose as much as 40 feet during that time.
It was snowing in Salt Lake City last week when water managers from seven Western states convened to address the pressing drought on the Colorado River.
The waterway winds 1,450 miles from Wyoming to Mexico, providing crucial water to more than 40 million people. New Mexico farmers rely on it to sustain alfalfa, corn, beans and numerous other crops.
Through the San Juan-Chama Project, a river diversion, the Colorado River Basin supplies drinking water to Albuquerque residents. Santa Fe, Taos, Española and other towns and villages in New Mexico also rely on the project’s water, which sends flows into the Rio Grande watershed.
But the massive waterway is experiencing its worst drought on record.
If conditions persist without fundamental changes to how states use flows from the Colorado River, the Southwest could see devastating consequences in the next five years, experts say. Reserves in Lake Powell and Lake Mead could continue to plummet, threatening hydropower, electricity and water supplies.
“If your choice is using less water or abandoning your city, it’s a no-brainer,” said John Fleck, director of the water resources program at the University of New Mexico. “You don’t see people abandoning their cities when they haven’t used all their conservation options.”
While none of these doom-and-gloom scenarios are in the near term for New Mexicans, water experts say, proper water use plans need to go into effect now to mitigate extreme drought conditions and ease the future strain on the Colorado River…
“This megadrought that we are in has continued to get worse,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, bureau chief of the Colorado River Basin for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
While there have been interim guidelines for how to manage dropping water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell since 2007, states spent the last 2½ years developing drought contingency plans, with each working to establish concrete actions it can take to preserve water supplied by the Colorado River…
Last week, the Bureau of Reclamation agreed to give states a few more weeks to reach an agreement. If they are unable to agree on a drought plan to send to Congress within the next month, governors from the seven states will be asked to submit input on potential federal interventions into water planning for the lower-basin states.
Longworth and other water managers said states were not able to reach an agreement last week, with some new stopping blocks arising from California and Arizona; talks could continue into March.
Longworth’s office also will be working on a recommendation for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on how New Mexico would approach any federal intervention.
“Nobody questions the growing risk and urgent need for action along the Colorado River,” Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman said in a news release. “… Action is needed now. In the absence of consensus plans from the Basin states, the federal government must take action to protect the river and all who depend on it — farmers and cities across seven states.”
If plans are approved and legislation signed, states will then embark on a process to determine just how they will be implemented.
New Mexico released a draft of its plan in October.
It calls for reoperating three large reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. They are Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Utah and Wyoming, Navajo Lake in New Mexico, and Blue Mesa Reservoir in Colorado.
Drawing water from these reservoir would not violate legal agreements, Schmidt-Petersen said.
The plan also would create a voluntary exchange program for farmers throughout the upper-basin states. In exchange for a payment, farmers would agree not to use their land to grow crops, thereby conserving water use. In New Mexico, the exchange would target farmers in the San Juan Basin.
As part of a pilot program in 2018, farmers were paid between $150 and $219 per acre-foot conserved, Schmidt-Petersen said.
“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Fleck said. “On the one hand, climate change is reducing supply in the Colorado Basin, so there is cause for concern about that. On the other hand, communities have gotten really good at using less water when we have to.”