NM drought wors­en­ing de­spite re­cent rain­fall

Sil­very min­nows gain most from storms; reser­voirs get­ting low

Albuquerque Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY OL­LIE REED JR. JOUR­NAL STAFF WRITER

Never mind this week’s rain. It didn’t help much — un­less you hap­pen to be a sil­very min­now.

“A few rain­fall in­ci­dents does not end a six-month drought,” said Royce Fon­tenot, se­nior hy­drol­o­gist in the Al­bu­querque of­fice of the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. “We got a big drink of wa­ter (this week), but we need to keep get­ting those big drinks. That’s the story of this drought. It gives you a lot of wa­ter and then turns it off.”

A map released Thurs­day by the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s drought mon­i­tor shows that more than 20 per­cent of New Mex­ico — scat­tered ar­eas in the north­ern part of the state — is in ex­cep­tional drought, the most se­ri­ous cat­e­gory, and more than 99 per­cent of the state is in some kind of drought. And the drop­ping of wa­ter lev­els in the Ele­phant Butte and Ca­ballo

reser­voirs forced a re­stric­tion on stor­ing ad­di­tional wa­ter in north­ern New Mex­ico reser­voirs.

To make things grim­mer, Fon­tenot said Thurs­day that the out­look for the next eight to 14 days is hot and dry.

There is a sil­very lin­ing, how­ever. David Gensler, wa­ter op­er­a­tions man­ager for the Mid­dle Rio Grande Con­ser­vancy Dis­trict, said the sud­den in­crease in Rio Grande flows caused by the rain this week stim­u­lated spawn­ing among the en­dan­gered sil­very min­now, as in­di­cated by the num­ber of min­now eggs col­lected in sur­veys.

“The rain made lots of sil­very min­now ba­bies,” Gensler said. “A sud­den in­crease in river flow is like can­dle­light and vi­o­lins to them.”

“Twenty per­cent of the state in ex­cep­tional drought is pretty high,” Fon­tenot said. He said New Mex­ico has not had that de­gree of ex­cep­tional drought since Au­gust 2013. But it has been even worse in the past. In a drought that lasted from May 2011 to May 2012, as much as 49 per­cent of New Mex­ico was in that cat­e­gory.

Some parts of New Mex­ico got a lot of rain from a sys­tem that moved into the state Mon­day and lin­gered into Thurs­day. A thun­der­storm Mon­day broke a 54-day streak with­out mea­sur­able pre­cip­i­ta­tion in Al­bu­querque. Al­bu­querque got 0.12 inch that day, Clay­ton 0.46, Roswell 0.51, Tu­cum­cari 1.10 inches and Clo­vis 1.21.

Some ar­eas got more rain in the suc­ceed­ing days. Fon­tenot said that on Wed­nes­day up to 6 inches of rain fell within six hours along U.S. 84 in San Miguel and Guadalupe coun­ties.

“But the mois­ture we got (this week) is only go­ing to go so far,” Fon­tenot said. “We need that ro­bust (sum­mer) mon­soon. Now things look good for that. I’m cau­tiously op­ti­mistic, but we have to wait and see.”

This week’s rain, as vig­or­ous as it was in some ar­eas, did not stop the wa­ter lev­els in the Ele­phant Butte Reser­voir, five miles north of Truth and Con­se­quences, and Ca­ballo Reser­voir, 16 miles south of TorC, from drop­ping low enough to trig­ger a Rio Grande Com­pact pro­vi­sion pro­hibit­ing the stor­age of ad­di­tional wa­ter in up­stream reser­voirs.

The Rio Grande Com­pact gov­erns the dis­tri­bu­tion of wa­ter among Col­orado, New Mex­ico and Texas. Ac­cord­ing to Ar­ti­cle VII of the com­pact, New Mex­ico can­not store wa­ter in north­ern reser­voirs such as El Vado, Abiquiu and Heron when the com­bined wa­ters at Ele­phant Butte and Ca­ballo re­cede to less than 400,000 acre-feet. Wa­ter from Ele­phant Butte and Ca­ballo is used to ir­ri­gate lands in south­ern New Mex­ico and West Texas, pro­vide wa­ter for in­dus­trial and mu­nic­i­pal use in El Paso and sup­ply wa­ter to Mex­ico.

The Con­ser­vancy Dis­trict’s Gensler said the to­tal wa­ter in Ele­phant Butte and Ca­ballo dropped be­low 400,000 acre-feet Sun­day, put­ting the Ar­ti­cle VII re­stric­tion into ef­fect for the first time since early this year. An acre-foot is the amount of wa­ter nec­es­sary to cover an acre to a depth of 1 foot.

On Thurs­day, com­bined wa­ter in the two reser­voirs was at about 394,000 acre-feet, Gensler said.

“If we talk for a while it might be down to 393,000 acre-feet,” Gensler told the Jour­nal on Thurs­day. “It’s drop­ping pretty fast.”

OK for now

Gensler said the Ar­ti­cle VII re­stric­tion would prob­a­bly not change much for the ir­ri­ga­tors on the 70,000 acres of crop­land served by the Con­ser­vancy Dis­trict.

“Op­por­tu­ni­ties for stor­age are pretty rare dur­ing the sum­mer­time any­way,” he said. And he noted that even though Ar­ti­cle VII re­stricts the stor­age of ad­di­tional wa­ter, it does not pro­hibit the re­lease of wa­ter that had al­ready been in stor­age. He said that adds up to 107,000 acre-feet in El Vado, Heron and Abiquiu.

“That’s what we’ve got to get us through the sum­mer,” he said. “And any lit­tle shot of mois­ture we get will help. This week’s rain saved us 1,500 acre-feet or so, al­lowed us to charge up our canals, re­duce stor­age re­lease slightly and got a few more peo­ple some wa­ter.”

Gensler said, how­ever, that things could get re­ally bad if the state is still un­der the Ar­ti­cle VII re­stric­tion next spring.

“That’s when it will re­ally hurt us,” he said. “As­sum­ing we have a nice snow­pack next spring, it would be nice for us to re­plen­ish our reser­voirs, and Ar­ti­cle VII would stop us from do­ing that in 2019.

“Whether we get through this (ir­ri­ga­tion) sea­son or not, what­ever hap­pens, we are go­ing to use up much of our stor­age. We could have a lot of empty lakes by the end of the year.”

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