Water diversions paused to ensure Rio Grande keeps flowing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — One of New Mexico’s largest drinking water providers will stop diverting water from the Rio Grande to help prevent the stretch of the river that runs through Albuquerque from going dry this summer, officials said Tuesday.

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority said the curtailment is expected to last until the fall as the utility switches to using groundwater exclusively over the summer to provide drinking water to customers in the metro area.

While the river's dwindling levels aren't expected to force mandatory restrictions on water use in the Albuquerque area, officials are urging people to conserve to limit the strain on the aquifer.

Carlos Bustos, the authority’s conservation manager, said water use is up by more than 1 billion gallons over last year. He said that's not unexpected because 2019 was a wet year and demands were lower.

“Usage has been creeping up, and with river conditions as dry as they are, it’s a good time for folks to start tapping the brakes on outdoor consumption,” he said.

The conservation goal set for this year is 127 gallons (480 liters) per person daily.

Officials are blaming poor runoff for the river conditions. While the snowpack was decent going into April, it was essentially gone the next month and very little had made its way down the tributaries and to the river.

Water management and irrigation agencies have been supplementing the river with water from upstream storage to meet demand since the spring.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation started the year with about 20,000 acre-feet of leased water from San Juan-Chama Project to supplement flows for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Agency spokeswoman Mary Carlson said Tuesday they were forced to start releasing that water in April due to the low runoff and are now down to about 12,500 acre-feet for the remainder of the season.

“We’ve leased or are in the process of leasing everything available to use this year,” she said. “We are working closely with our biologists and our partners and attempting to put the limited supply of water available into the river in areas where it’s most beneficial to the silvery minnow.”

Carlson said the monsoon season is going to have to materialize “in a big way" to avoid intermittency or drying in the Albuquerque reach.

The Albuquerque water authority said it will continue to release surface water from Abiquiu reservoir in northern New Mexico to help keep Albuquerque's stretch wet. The utility is required by the state to cease drinking water diversions when native river flows at the Central Avenue bridge reach 122 cubic feet (3,454 liters) per second or lower. That's expected to happen later this summer.

Federal officials say the utility's move will help take pressure off the river.

As is typical, some stretches of the river further south already are dry.

Some experts have predicted that this summer's flows could be the worst in decades.

The river also was in dire straights in 2018, when the river began drying in spots before May. That year, the Bureau of Reclamation leased another 20,000 acre-feet of water from the Albuquerque water authority, but officials reiterated that there's little extra water available this year since interstate water-sharing compacts have prevented storage in upstream reservoirs. An acre-foot is equal to about 325,850 gallons (1.2 million liters).

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order June 15 declaring that drought and severe fire conditions exist throughout the state. In addition to the concern over surface water supplies, The order highlighted the fire restrictions put in place by state and federal agencies and called on municipalities to do the same with regards to fireworks ahead of the 4th of July holiday.

The latest federal drought map shows about three-quarters of the state are dealing with some form of drought, with the area along the New Mexico-Colorado border seeing the most extreme conditions. Swaths of moderate to severe drought also are covering parts of northwestern and eastern New Mexico.

While the region is on the verge of the summer rainy season, forecasters have cautioned that this year could see close to or below average rainfall while temperatures will range from slight above to above average.