Reduced to a trickle, river managers prepare for more drying

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By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press

BERNALILLO, NM (AP) — Triple-digit temperatures and a fickle monsoon season have combined with decades of persistent drought to put one of North America’s longest rivers in its most precarious situation yet. .

Islands of sand and gravel and patches of cracked mud take over where the Rio Grande once flowed. It’s a scene not unlike other hot, dry places in the western United States where rivers and reservoirs have shrunk due to climate change and continued demand.

Local and federal water managers warned Thursday that other stretches of the beleaguered Rio Grande will dry up in the coming days in the Albuquerque area, leaving endangered silver minnows stranded in the remaining puddles.

The threat of the river drying up so far north has been present for a few summers due to persistent drought, said officials from the Bureau of Reclamation and one of the river’s largest irrigation districts. But this could be the year that residents of New Mexico’s most populous region will witness the effects of climate change on a larger scale.

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It is not uncommon for parts of the Rio Grande to dry up in its southernmost part, but not in Albuquerque.

Like a monument, the river crosses the city, flanked by a forest of poplars and willows. It is one of the few green ribbons to cut through the arid state, providing water for crops and communities.

“It’s almost the only source of water in central New Mexico and we’re not trying to conserve it just for fish,” said Andy Dean, a federal biologist. “It’s our job as the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep this animal from becoming extinct, but this water is also for everyone in the valley. We’re trying to keep it for everyone and if the fish is that piece that helps us do that, so that’s what we have to use.”

The Bureau of Reclamation will release what little extra water it has left in reservoirs upstream along the Rio Grande. Over the past 20 years, the agency has leased about 700,000 acre-feet — or 228 billion gallons — of water to supplement flows through the middle Rio Grande for endangered and threatened species.

Biologists aren’t sure this latest version will be enough to make a difference for the endangered minnow.

Crews have previously rescued stranded minnows in the San Acacia and Isleta areas and will continue as the river dries up. So far they’ve been lucky enough to catch around 50 fish a day, but Dean said those numbers were only a fraction of what’s been saved in recent years.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of minnows out there right now. Our population monitoring also reflects this,” he said.

Dean said picking up minnows in Albuquerque would be new territory for the crew because they’ve never had to do such work this far north.

With a series of dams and interstate water-sharing agreements governing the flows of the Rio Grande, local, state and federal authorities have succeeded in previous years in reaching resolutions that allow for the leasing and release of supplemental water so that flows can be boosted in times of crisis. need.

This year is different. New Mexico has been unable to store any additional runoff in upstream reservoirs because it owes water to Texas under an interstate pact. With debt outstanding and no water in the bank, New Mexico has nothing but the hope of rain to recharge the system during the monsoon season.

Jason Casuga, the chief district engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy, which serves farmers throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley, said this should serve as a wake-up call to the public and conservation management agencies. ‘water.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure on this river that was built for a purpose and it was during a time when the water was plentiful,” he said. “I hope that’s the bright side that comes out of this, that people start rethinking how we can use this existing infrastructure.”

Congressional legislation would be required in some cases. In others, it would require agreements with federal water and wildlife agencies that would allow for more flexibility.

“The longer this drought lasts, I think people are going to recognize that we have to find a balance,” Casuga said.

Irrigation district and state officials pushed more farmers to participate in voluntary set-aside schemes. Farmers would leave their fields unplanted for a season to save water and increase what crosses the border into Texas to reduce debt.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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