The annual meeting to conduct business for the Rio Grande meandered through four hours on topics such as dam repairs and wildlands restoration projects.
Two key takeaways emerged from the meetup on Friday in Santa Fe. There’s more money and more water flowing this year – but New Mexico’s commissioner warned that the “uncertain future,” should mean more need for cooperation and sharing.
New Mexico State Engineer Mike Hamman said in his address that the state is making renewed efforts to settle water rights disputes at all levels, from local to tribal to interstate concerns.
“Having that certainty at whatever level you can, as we face uncertain impacts of climate change, and higher temperatures in the southwest, is a very important thing for us to consider,” Hamman said during his testimony.
2022 bad year for silvery minnow; officials optimistic for upcoming season
Rapid warming and variable precipitation can mean more water in some years, while still trending drier overall. And recent years showcased devastating drought.
In 2022, winds whipped wildfires across the watershed also stripped snowpacks from the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains. Less water made it into the riverbed, and the river broke for more than 50 miles.
The Rio Grande evaporated up to the Montaño Bridge in Albuquerque for the first time in 30 years. Heavy monsoons then bailed out many of the farmers from another short irrigation season. But heavy rains also caused ruinous floods in burn scars, and damaged infrastructure in southern New Mexico.
In contrast, 2023’s wet winter doubled snowpacks in some places. Rapid warming flooded the Jemez River, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Ephemeral rivers are chuckling again after three years of being mostly sand bed.
Projections are optimistic, and the irrigation season in New Mexico will kick off in April and May rather than later in the summer.
What’s happening with the Supreme Court lawsuit?
In short, not much.
All parties involved are still waiting on a ruling from U.S. 8th Circuit Judge Michael Melloy.
Texas, New Mexico and Colorado argued before Melloy in February for and against a potential joint settlement in the case over the objections of the federal government and the irrigation districts.
Negotiations from that lawsuit settlement overhauled the methods to account how much water is owed between the three states, ending an 11-year-old disagreement in the Commission.
In the Rio Grande Compact, the 1938 agreement between the states and approved by Congress to share the river’s water, there’s a concept of state credit and debit. If states don’t send enough water to downstream states, they accrue a debit, maxing out at certain limits. If states send too much water, then they accrue credit water, stored in Elephant Butte. All of this accounting carries forward to the next year.
The rock formation that gave Elephant Butte Reservoir its name, with bathtub rings showing critically-low water levels. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)
In recent years of drought, New Mexico was rapidly approaching its debit allowance of 200,000 acre-feet, with an accrued debit of 128,900 acre feet in 2021. Colorado had a debit of 4,000 acre-feet.
Page Pegram, a hydrologist for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, explained that after the one-time adjustments, and the new accounting methods mean that Colorado now has 200 acre-feet in credit. New Mexico’s debt was shaved by 32,500 acre-feet, for a total debit of 93,000 acre-feet.
Addressing the Pueblos
Commissioners voted unanimously to direct their legal teams and technical advisors to determine how the Pueblos “could present information,” for future annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting in 2024.
It’s unclear if that role could mean more decision-power for the Pueblos going forward.
Last year, six middle Rio Grande Pueblos – San Felipe, Santo Domingo, Cochiti, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta— called for a “seat at the table,” and to be able to address Commission themselves as a coalition, rather than through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
This is not the first time the Pueblos have advocated for more inclusion in decision-making on the river. In settlement talks for a 1980 lawsuit brought by Cochiti Pueblo after the federal government flooded Cochiti farmlands included giving the Pueblo non-voting status on the commission. That didn’t happen. In 1999, Pueblos again petitioned the commission for more direct say over contracts negotiated with the federal government.
‘Not an object to be bartered,’ the Rio Grande is lifeblood for the land
Isleta Pueblo Gov. Max Zuni said he hopes to educate the commission on the context to understand the Pueblos’ history and water rights.
For the past year, an Interior Department task force has been working on a process to lay out all of the Pueblos’ water rights. Zuni said he hopes that will change to a settlement team, to begin the negotiation for water rights.
“We expect the process will be of interest to all the compact states,” Zuni said.
He invited the commissioners to visit the Pueblos to see how they managed the Rio Grande.
“We have survived for many, many years using that water. As we all know,it’s not just for irrigated land, we use it for traditional purposes,” Zuni said.
“It is important to us, our livelihood,” he added.
Money streams and water flows
Federal agencies and states alike talked about increased investment for water projects.
The U.S. Army Corps announced a design agreement with Ohkay Owingeh and Santa Clara Pueblo for $100 million, to focus on Española ecosystem restoration specifically for tribal communities.
At the state level, Hamman celebrated that the N.M. Office of the State Engineer secured $65 million “specifically for the Lower Rio Grande” if the Supreme Court approves the settlement of the lawsuit.
In a presentation to lawmakers during the session, attorneys representing New Mexico said the plan would include cutting groundwater pumping below Elephant Butte Reservoir by 17,000 acre-feet.
In the meeting, Hamman said that money would be used over the next five to 10 years to “assure our Texas friends just across the border that we can continue to deliver water as required to meet the 57-43” split of the river.
Rio Grande water released from Caballo Dam on June 1, 2022. The water travels downstream for several days to reach the riverbed running through El Paso, Texas. Releases used to come in March or April, but with less water flowing downstream, managers now wait until nearly the middle of the growing season. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
Commissioner Bobby Skov, who represents Texas, said he hopes that other issues can be addressed now that the Supreme Court lawsuit is less pressing.
Skov concluded with a concern that water managers are losing the fight against sediment buildup in dams, and other channels.
He thanked the International Boundary and Water Commission’s removal of about 275,000 cubic yards in 2022, but noted that more than 486,000 cubic yards of sediment are deposited each year.
“We’re slowly losing ground, we need to come up with some good ways to work through this,” Skov said, adding that thousands of acre-feet of water could be gained.
Isela Canava, the lead civil engineer for IBWC, said the agency would need to spend an additional $4.6 million per year to remove the annual build-up.
Finally, a dam repair project at El Vado is delaying its reopening by another year.
El Vado holds drinking water for Albuquerque and Santa Fe from Rio Chama-San Juan, Pueblo water and Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District water, is out of commission for repairs to prevent its failure.
The dam’s unique steel faceplate is causing challenges for the contractors and storing water in 2024 is impossible, said Jennifer Faler, the area manager at the Bureau of Reclamation office in Albuquerque. Faler said the dam will possibly store some water in 2025, when another phase of construction on a spillway is underway.
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