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In Drought, Upper Rio Grande Sees Slight Rebound

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About a mile up the road from Jack Trujillo’s property where he grows alfalfa and raises about 20 head of cattle is a gauge to measure how much water flows into La Puente Ditch.

After a wet and cold winter, the spring temperatures are causing high runoff from the snow-packed mountains. On Sunday afternoon the flow of water into the ditch held steady at about seven cubic feet of water per second.

Trujillo said this is higher than normal. During last year’s dry conditions, the La Puente Ditch Board kept the flow at only five cubic feet per second.

Rivers, creeks and acequias across Rio Arriba County are flowing high with muddy brown nutrient-dense waters. The Rio Grande has run over its banks in some spots near Española and the strong flow of the Rio Chama can be heard as one drives by on U.S. Highway 84.

On the drive to Tierra Amarilla, ponds on the side of the road look wide and deep. Small arroyos that were filled with sand last year have flowing water in them.

Abiquiú Dam

Much of this runoff has to flow through Abiquiú Dam.

John Mueller, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations supervisor at Abiquiú Dam, said Abiquiú Lake rose about 15 feet in a little less than a month.

“Runoff is very good right now,” he said.

The wooden and concrete boat docks were sticking out of the water, and people were having to launch their boats into the lake from the ground. Now, he said the docks are usable again.

Mueller said Abiquiú Dam was created as a flood control device and works as a sort of funneling system for the different types of water that come down the Rio Chama.

They separate the native and San Juan-Chama Project waters, he said.

Native water is what will eventually flow through acequias and can be used by locals for their fields, gardens or for their animals.

It is the water the filled the ditch near Trujillo’s property.

The San Juan-Chama Project diverts water from the San Juan River, which is a tributary to the Colorado River, to the Rio Grande Basin, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The water is used by people in places such as the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Española, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Alamos and further south for personal, municipal and industrial use.

While Mueller releases San Juan-Chama water downstream, he also monitors the amount of native water flowing into Abiquiú Lake and the flow out of the Abiquiú Dam.

He said the real indicator for native water runoff is the United States Geological Survey gauge at La Puente.

“Which is up on the Chama before the San Juan-Chama waters come in, which is just downstream from Heron,” he said.

The Geological Survey website has historical and real-time data for gauge stations on waterways in all river basins in the state.

The La Puente gauge is in the Rio Grande Basin. The Geological Survey data shows that as of Tuesday it has a daily discharge of about 2,220 cubic feet of water per second.

It's vastly different from the same week last year, when the gauge read between 250 and 400 cubic feet of water per second.

With so much native water coming in, Mueller said they have to release it at the maximum capacity of 1,800 cubic feet per second from Abiquiú Dam.

“All this native water is being passed through, and being passed through as if the dam wasn’t here,” he said.

The flow maxes at 18,000 cubic feet per second because anything more could damage historical water structures like the acequias, Mueller said.

He said the flow of native water is expected to slow in about a week because some of it will be stored in El Vado Lake because restrictions of Article 7 of the Middle Rio Grande Compact will be lifted.

Article 7 states that no reservoir built after 1929 in Colorado or New Mexico is allowed to store water if two reservoirs, Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Lake, have a combined total of less than 400,000 acre feet of water.

Mueller said they recently got an update from the Bureau of Reclamation and that as of May 8, Elephant Butte and Caballo held about 371,000 acre feet of water.

When it gets to the 400,000 acre feet level, native water can begin to be stored in El Vado, he said. This means less water will flow downstream through Abiquiú Lake and out the dam.

The New Mexico Office of the State Engineer expects storage at Elephant Butte to exceed 600,000 acre feet, and that this will be the highest lake level since 2010, Acting Public Information Officer Kristina Eckhart wrote in an email Tuesday.

She also wrote that a good runoff year does come with some disadvantages.

Under the Rio Grande Compact, when there is higher runoff, a greater percentage of the water has to be delivered to Texas, she wrote.

In 2013, Texas sued the state of New Mexico and alleged that it has failed to deliver the water entitled to Texas under the Compact.

Office engineers forecast that the flow at the Otowi Suspension Bridge near San Ildefonso Pueblo in Santa Fe County, which is about 10 miles south of Española, to flow at 138 percent.

Down the mountain

The native water goes through its own journey before it can be used by farmers for irrigation.

Donald Martinez, the agriculture agent at the New Mexico State University Extension Office in Abiquiú, said it starts with snowpack.

“A lot of these little tributaries, you know, start flowing once we get a little bit of heat on the snowpack,” he said. “And these little tributaries fall into small creeks and pretty much all the small creeks are right along the ridge. For example, like the Canjilon Creek, that one goes right off the side of the little tiny town of Canjilon.”

Smaller communities along the creeks use this runoff for irrigation and recharging well aquifers, he said.

All the little rivers continue to flow downstream and into the Rio Chama.

“Which is like the Vallecitos, El Rito Creek, the Nutrias, the Cebolla, the Canjilon,” Martinez said. “The little tributaries all come together on the Rio Chama, which makes it a big flow, which all goes into the Abiquiú Dam.”

Snowpack

Eckhart wrote that this year’s snowpack is well above the state’s 30-year average.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service tracks the snowpack levels at different points in each of the state’s river basins.

Snowpack in the Rio Chama River Basin as of Tuesday is at 246 percent of its median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In the Upper Rio Grande Basin, it is at 162 percent.

Although there is an abundance of water flowing through the rivers and ditches, one year of wet weather does not change the precarious situation for farmers and ranchers.

Martinez said that while farmers and ranchers have always had to deal with the weather, a person really cannot guess what is going to happen from one year to the next.

“Just when a dry year comes, then you scale back on your farming practices,” he said.

Farmers and ranchers will cut their livestock numbers or decide to skip planting a field, he said. In a wet year, such as this one, people have to decide if they invest the money to plant and buy more animals.

“So to get right back to where it is productive is difficult, you know, because here we are again because we don’t know what the summer is going to bring us,” he said. “We are taking a big gamble.”

The norm now is to plan for a dry year and not a wet year, he said.

Climate change

Climate data supports this way of thinking.

New Mexico is listed as the sixth-fastest-warming state in the country, according to a 2016 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, with temperatures increasing by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.

As of May 7, about 45 percent of the state is facing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. The majority of Rio Arriba County is experiencing moderate drought.

Martinez said that climate change is becoming a hot topic among farmers and ranchers who visit the Extension Office.

“A lot of people are calling to see if there is current publications,” he said. “Us through (the Extension Office) are working with our specialists in trying to put some publications out that things are changing in our environment.”

This means they are going to start doing more workshops focused on drought management and water use, he said.

“I noticed probably in the last 15 years that it has changed,” Medanales farmer Robert Chavez said. “Either people believe it or not, there is climate change and that is what is happening.”

Although the ditch near his property is running high with the muddy brown, nutrient dense water, this year is an anomaly and far from the norm.

Like most farmers, Chavez has to pay close attention to the temperature, the ditch level, soil moisture and climate.

He plans to plant about three acres of alfalfa, but is having to hold off due to the cold, wet spring weather.

“Because of all the moisture, it is going to delay me because if it is too wet and the soil is still too cold for the germination of seeds,” he said.

Typically, he could count on the cold weather to end around May 15, which is usually the date after which it will stop freezing.

Due to changes in climate, he said, May 15 is no longer a safe bet.

Two years ago, he planted 2,000 heirloom tomato plants that froze overnight in an unexpected springtime freeze.

On top of these types of challenges, farmers also have to work with the other parciantes of the acequia to share the water.

“When they cut the water back on us, if someone waters above me, well then I don’t get to irrigate,” Chavez said. “Well, if it comes down, I am going to irrigate so everyone down below doesn’t get to irrigate.”

Trujillo said he has to compete to even get a portion of his allotment.

Although the water is abundant, he said he still only expects to be allowed to irrigate once or twice every other week. Since he is at the tail end of the ditch, he only gets what the others above him do not use.

“In the good old days, we had plenty of water, but now for quite a few years they cut us back to five (cubic feet per second.)” Trujillo said. “That’s only enough water for one irrigatior, not for two.”

This led Trujillo to switch over to a sprinkler system instead of flood irrigation, but he said the members of his acequia board favor those members who use traditional flood irrigation practices.

Trujillo only grows enough alfalfa to feed his cows and plans to make only one cutting sometime in August.

“With one watering in the summer, that’s excellent for growing tumble weeds and rosettas, that’s what it’s perfect for,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo worked with Martinez at the Extension Office to figure out the difference in gallons between using his sprinkler system versus flood irrigation.

According to their calculations, his sprinkler system uses about 866 gallons of water per hour, versus the traditional flood irrigation at about 13,464 gallons of water per hour.

Chavez also tries to conserve and use best practices when he irrigates.

He uses a system of wooden boards with attached metal handles to create a temporary block in the ditch when the water is running below his head gate.

This causes the water to back up and get high enough to flow through his gate, down the ditch and into his fields.

Otherwise, he said, the water would run through the acequia, back into the Rio Chama and go downstream.

He has also invested money to level his fields, so that when he does irrigate, water spreads evenly over his crops and doesn’t pool in one place and damage the plants.

Chavez grew up in Albuquerque and was a school teacher before retiring and moving to his wife’s family property.

Although he loves what he does, he said it is almost impossible to balance all the challenges of being a farmer in Northern New Mexico.

He said it is a lifestyle he chooses.

“I don’t say you can really get a balance because you are dealing with all these outside factors to come to a point where you say you can deal with it,” he said. “I don’t really think there is a position where you can do it.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of water flowing out of the Abiquiú Dam.

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