Posted on Tuesday April 14, 2020 | 10:42 a.m.
Updated 3 hours and 29 minutes ago
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) – The mighty Rio Grande looks less powerful as American forecasters predict that spring flows will be less than half the average – or worse – and this indicates potential problems for the already stressed waterway.
One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking water and irrigation to millions of people from southern Colorado to Texas and Mexico as part of a sharing agreement decades old water. With more dry than wet years in the past two decades, the amount of water flowing downstream has been a subject of controversy among states.
As New Mexico and Texas vie for their shares in the United States Supreme Court, forecasters from the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service say river and river flows through New Mexico have declined significantly after a March a little dry.
Models show that drought is expected to retain its hold on the mountains along the New Mexico-Colorado border that feeds the Rio Grande, while California, Nevada, and other southwestern states are not expected not see a respite from the drought until June.
In southern New Mexico, irrigation officials expect flows into the state’s largest reservoir to be only 34% of the 30-year average. There is water in stock as of 2019, but officials say it will likely be used by the summer, and New Mexico will not be able to store additional water to avoid violating the pacts of sharing of water.
Phil King, an engineering consultant for the Elephant Butte irrigation district, describes the 2020 runoff forecast in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado as increasingly bleak.
“This basically means that the water supply for the Rio Grande project, including the EBID, is in very poor condition,” he said.
The irrigation district is home to some of the best pecan orchards in the country and many local farmers grow chili, the iconic crop of New Mexico.
Upstream, environmentalists are concerned about the overall health of the river and the implications of another dry year for minnows and other species at risk.
On Saturday, Galen Hecht and WildEarth Guardians visited the Rio Grande south of the gauge of the Otowi Bridge. The water in some places was not high enough to cover the rocks that make up the riverbed.
In a decade of forecasting, the Natural Resources Conservation Service has estimated only twice the above-average flows at Otowi. Hecht said the alarm is ringing again, as the latest outlook calls for flows that are about half the average.
“History shows that below average years of water and existing demands result in low flows, consolidated pollutants and the drying up of rivers, which harms the environment and has an impact on the health of our people. communities, “he said.
Much of the Rio Grande dried up under Albuquerque in 2018, with drying starting in April. Barely a year earlier, biologists reported an unprecedented number of adult silver minnows from the Rio Grande in the river due to wet conditions, but low subsequent flows eventually decimated the population.
Federal officials said at a meeting on Monday that there will be no large releases this year to increase minnows’ flows because there is no additional water to circulate.
All they can do is “shake up” the flows in the hope of encouraging spawning so that the eggs can be collected for the captive breeding effort. This means that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which serves farmers in central New Mexico, will hold water for a day and then release it a few days later to mimic an impulse of spring runoff.
Biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say that if the river dries up during or just after spawning minnows, it could be difficult for the larvae. If flow rates improve, it could be an average season for fish – but probably not better.
While neighbors in Nevada and Arizona wore shorts and t-shirts on Monday, New Mexico had a late winter dose. Several inches of snow were reported at high altitudes while rain was falling elsewhere.
Authorities say they will take it because federal data indicates that the moisture content of the snowpack has dropped to about two-thirds of the average and that drought persists in the Rio Grande basin from southern headwaters from Colorado to south of Albuquerque. A drought pocket has also been concentrated in the Four Corners region since last year.
Colorado began diverting its share of the Rio Grande in early April, which means that little water has crossed the state line, said David Gensler, director of conservation district water operations.
The demand for irrigation often increases in April faster than the river depending on the snowpack and temperatures. He said 2020 proves it, highlighting the low flow rates at the Otowi gauge.
As the nickel-sized snowflakes fell on Monday, Gensler and others were thankful.
“I know we will need almost every drop we can get,” he said.