Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Farmers, cities along Rio Grande to get about same San Juan water allotment as last year | Local News

Facing another summer of diminished river flows, New Mexico farmers along the Rio Grande feel defeated by the relentless drought and will get only modest relief from this year’s supply of water diverted from the San Juan River basin.

Cities and growers will receive an estimated 60 percent of their full allocations from the San Juan this summer, about the same as last year and not enough to offset the depleted Rio Grande if the monsoon is weak.

The US Bureau of Reclamation dispenses San Juan water that naturally would flow into the Colorado River but is instead diverted to the Rio Grande via the Rio Chama through a complex system of dams and tunnels called the San Juan-Chama Project.

The dip in the San Juan-Chama supply reflects a larger problem: A La Niña weather pattern, which causes three conditions in the Southwest, is combining with climate change to reduce river flows.

Water managers find themselves in the familiar position of hoping for rain — and plenty of it.

“We are at the mercy of nature,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “I think we’re going to experience shortages with our northern acequias sooner rather than later, and then that will translate all the way down through our system if we don’t get rain relatively quickly.”

Forecasts show no precipitation on the horizon, which means the Rio Chama is likely to dip below 60 percent of its historically normal levels by summer, Schmidt-Petersen said.

Lack of water storage adds to the challenges. Most reservoirs are severely depleted, and El Vado Lake, a storage site on the Rio Chama that’s key to creating a backup supply, is unavailable this summer while its dam undergoes renovations.

Federal officials will divide the allocations into monthly installations through the summer rather delivering them all at once.

Theoretically, flows could continue into the fall if there is adequate runoff, but more likely they’ll end well before that, given the area’s current hydrology, said Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation.

“July or August is most likely going to be the last one,” Donnelly said of the releases.

About 14,000 acre-feet of water, or 4.6 billion gallons, will go to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for irrigation.

3,400 acre-feet, or 1.1 billion gallons.

Albuquerque, the biggest user, wants to get 31,000 acre-feet, or about 10.1 billion gallons.

Both cities have groundwater systems to augment river water when necessary. Water officials have said the multiple sources will enable the cities to avoid serious shortages amid the changing climate in the coming decade.

Jesse Roach, the city of Santa Fe’s Water Division director, said the city has a year’s worth of stored water it can tap, and the federal allocation will be a helpful supplement.

But, he said, the city will head into the fall with some of its reserve depleted, driving home the need for improving the overall supply through a return-flow system.

“If there’s going to be less San Juan-Chama water available, we need to use it more efficiently or, as would say, consume it more fully,” Roach said.

By putting back some of the San Juan-Chama water pulled from the Rio Grande — even as treated effluent — the local government would receive return-flow credits allowing it to divert more of the water, he said.

He was speaking of plans for a 17-mile pipeline stretching from the wastewater treatment plant southwest of the city to the Buckman Direct Diversion on the Rio Grande, which lay at the end of Old Buckman Road a few miles northwest of the Diablo Canyon Trailhead.

The estimated $20 million project also would enable the city to build a backup water supply that would be vital in the coming years as a changing climate is predicted to strain supplies throughout the region.

“Without the return-flow project or without doing anything, we think we would start to see shortages in the next 10 to 20 [or] 30 years,” Roach said.

For farmers, who rely mostly on the Rio Grande for their livelihoods, the increasingly arid climate, with warming temperatures and higher evaporation, is troublesome.

They mainly irrigate with water that flows naturally into the Rio Grande, known as native water.

The San-Juan Chama water is a finite supplement to help get them into July, when the monsoon typically starts, said Jason Casuga, CEO and chief engineer of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

Still, he would have liked to have seen a larger amount of San-Juan Chama water coming this summer, as the spring runoff looks slimmer.

“If native drops so low and we have to augment with so much San Juan-Chama, it’s not going to go very far,” Casuga said.

Colder temperatures through mid-spring have led to the snow lingering longer and not melting into an early runoff, as it did last year, he said.

But strong winds that are stoking and spreading wildfires are causing much of the remaining snowpack to “sublimate” or turn into a powdery vapor, leaving less to melt and flow into waterways.

The snow could melt quickly as the weather warms, causing it to flow swiftly through the valley and making it extremely difficult to divert for irrigation.

And there will be no place to store that water with El Vado Lake closed while the dam is renovated, so it will flow downstream to Elephant Butte Lake, Casuga said.

Using Abiquiú Lake to store river water requires unanimous approval from the multistate Rio Grande Compact Commission, but Texas officials refuse to allow it, insisting New Mexico funnel as much water as possible to Elephant Butte to repay the 127,000 acre-feet the state owes Texas.

Paul Skrak, a Peña Blanca farmer, said with this year’s impending water shortage, he will forgo planting water-intensive crops such as chile, alfalfa and vegetables and will grow drought-resistant grasses to sell as feed.

Aside from consuming less water, the grasses can be harvested sooner, so they don’t require irrigation into late summer, said Skrak, who owns 52-acre Hidalgo Farms.

Skrak figures this is a wise plan because he doesn’t expect more than two months of water from the irrigation district. His area doesn’t have enough groundwater to pump in place of the river water, he said.

Even with the less-thirsty grasses, he will need a decent monsoon, Skrak said. He expects he’ll get one cutting, or batch, compared to the two or three of five years ago.

He decided to take this more conservative approach with farming instead of being paid to fallow his lands.

“I have more fun growing a crop than I do looking at dirt,” Skrak said.

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