It’s safe to say that the mood among many Western water managers is grim. When talking about drought or climate change, many still give that obligatory nod toward faith or hope—saying things like “Maybe the rains will come” or “Let’s hope next year’s better”—but the days of blind optimism are long past.
That was the case in early April, when the US Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office hosted a meeting on the bureau’s plans for the Middle Rio Grande.
With few exceptions, the news across most of the Western United States has been bad, bureau hydrologist Ed Kandl said at the meeting. “If there’s one bright spot—you can cross your fingers—it’s the probability for a good monsoon,” Kandl said. “Of course, they’ve been saying that for a few years now. But this is what we have to hang our hat on.”
Along with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the bureau—which supplies water to cities, farmers and endangered species in the Rio Grande—looks to an array of data to plan out its water operations, which involve moving water between reservoirs, complying with state and federal laws, and trying to make sure no one goes without water.
People like Kandl look at things like snowpack in the watershed’s mountain ranges, streamflow forecasts, reservoir levels and temperatures. Then, they compare current conditions with similar years in the past to predict what might happen in the spring and summer. That’s the time when demands for water—from farmers, city dwellers and even plants in the bosque—are the greatest.
At the bureau’s meeting in Albuquerque, Kandl pointed out that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near Santa Fe, received about an average amount of snow this season. The bad news, he said, was that by early April, it was already melting.
As the climate warms, scientists have shown that snowpack moves higher in elevation and farther north. And that snow also melts earlier in the season.
This year, measurements at the Otowi Gage on the Rio Grande, north of Santa Fe, show that the river reached its peak spring flows on April 2.
That’s more than a month early.
The endangered silvery minnow will have a rough summer: This year, water supplies are so tight that the bureau does not expect to be able to release water from upstream reservoirs to create the spike in flows that help the minnows spawn. And the river will likely dry again south of Albuquerque from mid-June until the conclusion of irrigation season at the end of October. For the second year in a row, users with rights to water that comes from the San Juan River in Colorado and into the Rio Grande via the Chama may not get their full allotments of water.
Until recently, a working group of scientists and economists from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology were studying the impacts of drought and climate change on agriculture and the economy. This spring, however, the New Mexico State Legislature cut the group’s funding from the state budget.
While some water users have rightful reason to worry, Santa Fe water managers say it’s in a relatively good position.
Currently, Santa Fe receives its water from a variety of sources: the Rio Grande, the Santa Fe River watershed and groundwater wells.
For decades, Santa Fe has had rights to water from the San Juan River that’s piped into the Chama River and flows into the Rio Grande, says Rick Carpenter, water resources and conservation manager with the City of Santa Fe’s Water Division.
“We started thinking a little bit outside the box—and certainly putting a lot of time and effort and money into our water supply following the 2000 and 2002 droughts, which were very, very severe and somewhat unprecedented,” Carpenter says, pointing out that in 2002, Santa Fe received nearly no water from its reservoirs on the Santa Fe River. “There were drought restrictions that were painful for the community. But that time provided the impetus, and certainly the will, to think seriously about accessing the San Juan-Chama water.”
The Buckman Direct Diversion Project was completed in 2011, allowing Santa Fe to take advantage of 5,230 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water each year.
But even during years of severe drought—when that water might not be available—Carpenter says that the city’s demand could be met with other surface and groundwater sources. Santa Fe also has water stored in upstream reservoirs on the Rio Grande: “If, for example, the San Juan-Chama project delivers 50 to 75 percent what it normally would, we could call for some of that water, and that would last us about ten years,” he says. “Of course, someday, that might be exhausted.”
And that’s why Santa Fe is continuing to plan. Right now, Carpenter says, they’re studying how to reuse water, either indirectly as nonpotable water or even as drinking water.
“That’s a concept a lot of communities don’t find too appealing, but as water supplies become shorter and shorter, there are communities around the Southwest looking at this seriously,” he says, citing San Diego and Denver.
“Not everybody really knows or understands how well-positioned Santa Fe is in comparison with other Southwest cities,” he says. “We have four diversified sources, a successful conservation program, and we’re looking at a fifth source [the reuse program]. I don’t know any other cities around the Southwest that can say that.”