Category Archives: Environment

Public should be ready for the Rio Grande’s bad year

Photo: Laura Paskus

By: Laura Paskus

As high winds whipped dust, Siberian elm seeds and recycling bins around Albuquerque Thursday afternoon, dozens of people filed into the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office to hear the agency’s 2018 forecast for the Rio Grande.

“I’ll be the bearer of bad news,” said Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Manager Jennifer Faler. “This is the most extreme shift we’ve had from one operating plan meeting to another.”

Last year at this time, snowmelt was pouring down the river, flooding riparian restoration projects, filling out farm fields and even pressing against levees. This year, the lack of snowpack throughout the watershed’s mountain ranges has left the Rio Grande low and slow—and dry for 14 miles south of Socorro. Currently, the river is dry through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Related story: It’s only April and a stretch of the Rio Grande has already dried

“It’s fortunate we have those dams and reservoirs up there,” Faler said, referring to reservoirs in northern New Mexico that store water for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. “That’s why we have them,” she said.

But later this summer, the conservancy district’s water storage is expected to run out, as is Reclamation’s supplemental water. That refers to water the federal agency leases to boost flows in the river and protect endangered species like the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow.

“We do expect to see drying in the Albuquerque reach this year,” Faler said, of the stretch of the Rio Grande that runs through the state’s largest city.

“And misery loves company,” she said. “On the Pecos [River], we’re expecting zero runoff from snowmelt into the reservoirs this year.”

In difficult times, people work together better, she said, adding, “We expect a ton of cooperation this year.”

During his presentation of the 2018 operating plan for the Rio Grande, which is compiled each year by Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hydrologist Ed Kandl offered additional details.

In addition to the news about the conservancy district’s stored water, and Reclamation’s supplemental water, running out, Kandl said New Mexico will likely enter into what’s called Article 7 conditions on the Rio Grande by May.

Under the Rio Grande Compact—the agreement under which Colorado, New Mexico and Texas share the river’s water—New Mexico is not allowed to store water in upstream reservoirs if Rio Grande Project storage is less than 400,000 acre feet in Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs. Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project supplies water to Texas, and also farmers in southern New Mexico.

Kandl shared slides forecasting flows along the Rio Grande based on the winter’s snowpack analysis. Of the Embudo gage in northern New Mexico, he said, “We’ll be flirting with 100 cfs throughout most of the year.”  Already this year, that stretch of the river has been running at less than half what it normally does.

For perspective’s sake: water flows at the Embudo gage on the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico from April 2000 through April 2018. During that entire 18-year period, only occasionally dipped as low as 100 cfs.

The “scariest” one, Kandl said, is the 2018 flows for the Rio Grande at the Central Avenue Bridge in Albuquerque, where the river will likely dry this spring and summer.

Kandl and Faler both said area residents should be prepared to see the dry riverbed. “The worst part is still coming,” Kandl said, “Though, maybe we’ll have a good monsoon.”

Over the next several months, Reclamation will also begin working with its stakeholders to update a basin-wide study of the impacts of climate change on the Upper Rio Grande.

That 2013 assessment looked at the potential impacts of additional temperature increases of 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century. Their study showed that flows on the Rio Grande will likely decrease by about a third, and flows in tributaries that supply San Juan-Chama water to the system will decrease by about one-quarter. In addition, snow will melt earlier and summertime flows will decrease. And as the month-to-month and yearly variability of flows increase, the “frequency, intensity and duration of both droughts and floods are protected to increase.”

The one “bright spot,” according to Reclamation officials on Thursday, is for rafters and recreationists on the Chama River. Because the agency will be releasing water from upstream reservoirs, the river’s flows will be good for rafting and kayaking.

The conservancy district’s hydrologist, David Gensler, offered characteristically optimistic comments at the end of the meeting and reassured people things will be okay. “Over almost 20 years,” he said, “we’ve all learned how to work really well together and use all our resources.”

This story originally appeared on New Mexico Political Report 

Related Stories:

Change up: SCOTUS changes special master on Rio Grande water battle 
U.S. Supreme Court issues opinion on Texas v. New Mexico & Colorado
Grim forecast for the Rio Grande has water managers, conservationists concerned
Record low snowpack foretells troubling spring, summer
In Deep Water: U.S. Supreme Court to decide how states share the drying Rio Grande, and New Mexico could lose big

 

Rio Grande Already Drying Out Near Socorro

Photo: Laura Paskus

by Laura Paskus

In springtime, rivers are supposed to swell with snowmelt, filling their channels and triggering fish to spawn. This year, however, the Middle Rio Grande has already dried south of Socorro.

Record-low snowpack in the mountains upstream means that the state’s largest river is in trouble this year. And so are the species and communities that depend on it.

Earlier this week, biologists headed to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to start scooping up endangered fish from pools and puddles and relocating them to a stretch of the river that is still flowing.

Speaking to NM Political Report Wednesday night, fish biologist Thomas Archdeacon said the salvage crew already collected about 15,000 silvery minnows within the roughly six miles of dry river on the refuge. Those numbers will start dropping quickly.

Since 1996, the Middle Rio Grande has often dried during the summer, sometimes for stretches of 30, 50 or even 90 miles. But drying in early April is nearly unprecedented in the river’s recorded history.

“We had such a great year last year in the river, and the fish are just going to get whacked this year,” said Archdeacon, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency mandated to enforce the Endangered Species Act. “It’s especially bad this year because the drying is happening before they spawn,” he said. “Some will probably still spawn, but there’s not enough water to create the habitat that the larval fish need.”

Historically one of the river’s most abundant species, the two-inch long silvery minnow lived throughout the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Pecos. By the 1990s, the fish survived only within a 174-mile stretch of the Rio Grande near Albuquerque, and in 1994, was protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the dams and diversions along the river, and delivers water used by cities and farmers. Officials are watching the situation closely.

“The results of this very dry winter are visible up and down the Rio Grande,” said Reclamation’s spokeswoman Mary Carlson, who added that the agency is working with its partners, such as Fish and Wildlife, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

Carlson said the agencies are working on a plan to create a pulse of water to help the fish spawn. Later this month, biologists are already scheduled to collect eggs; those they find will be raised in hatcheries.

“Reclamation currently has 11,600 acre-feet of water in storage to supplement the Rio Grande flows,” she said. “With a snowpack that is among the worst on record, we must weigh our options and manage this water in a way where it will provide the most benefit to the Rio Grande ecosystem.”

The Rio Grande’s early drying is just the latest signal that the state’s water problems demand close attention, particularly as the region continues to warm.

Thanks to warm, dry conditions and a lack of snowpack, experts are worried about fire season in New Mexico, which began months earlier than in the past. This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also designated 12 counties in New Mexico as primary natural disaster areas due to losses and damages caused by drought. Farmers and ranchers in 15 other counties also qualify for natural disaster assistance programs and loans.

That means all but six of the state’s 33 counties are affected by drought—before planting season has even begun in most areas.

Meanwhile, New Mexico is embroiled in a lawsuit on the Rio Grande over water rights.

In 2013, Texas sued New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump from groundwater wells near the Rio Grande, the state has failed—for decades—to send its legal share of water downstream. In a unanimous opinion last month, the U.S. Supreme Court also allowed the federal government to pursue its claims that New Mexico has harmed its ability to deliver water under the Rio Grande Compact and its international treaty with Mexico.

Were New Mexico to lose against Texas and the federal government, the state could be forced to curtail groundwater pumping and pay damages of a billion dollars or more.

This isn’t the first year Archdeacon has been out in the river channel, seining puddles for the endangered minnows—while having to leave behind carp, red shiners and other fish. Usually, they’re out there in late June or July, before monsoon rains give the river a boost.

This is the earliest his crews have ever done salvage work.

He realizes some people might not care about the survival of the silvery minnow itself. But he says it’s worth remembering that the minnow is an “umbrella species” for the Rio Grande.

“Maybe the minnow’s not that important, but if it weren’t there, it would be dry every year, and we wouldn’t have any of this—it would be like the Salt River in Phoenix,” he said. The Salt River is just one of the southwestern rivers that has dried entirely due to overuse. “By being a protected species, it’s protecting everything else that’s around in the bosque.”

This story originally appeared on New Mexico Political Report 

The USGS streamflow gages are available to view online, and include current conditions as well as median daily statistics. We’ve included below information from April 5, 2018 for three stream gages: Otowi, just south of the Colorado border; Alameda Bridge north of Albuquerque; and above the Highway 380 bridge in San Antonio, N.M.