Are we approaching EOL? The end-of-life for the Rio Grande?

Click to enlargeLaura Paskus

PILAR, NM — From his cabin on the Rio Grande, river runner Steve Harris watches the flows of the river ebb and peak throughout the year. When the water runs clear, he glimpses northern pike below the surface. In winter, bald eagles nest along the river. And throughout the year, foxes and beavers, bears and badgers traipse through the yard.

“This is my retreat to go back to after foraying out into the water wars,” he says, only half-joking. “Uncle Steve” has been running the Rio Grande, in one place or another, for about 35 years. And he’s been defending the river about that long, too.

As drought has intensified over the past few years, however, trying to protect what’s left of the river has gotten harder and harder…

That’s a chronic problem: For instance, as New Mexico reinitiates a statewide water-planning process dating back to the 1980s, officials have said they’re not incorporating the effects of climate change into the equation.

Yet less precipitation and higher temperatures seem to be colliding with the river’s future…

The push-up dam outside Harris’s cabin is the first diversion structure on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. It diverts water into a small acequia that sustains a few acres of pasture and a garden in the village. “Once you get below here, the river’s been diverted to some degree or another,” he says, ticking off the biggest dams and reservoirs downstream: Cochiti, Elephant Butte and Caballo. “And on this same river, if we drove a thousand miles downstream, it would be dry.”

Traveling through an arid landscape susceptible to drought, the Rio Grande has often flowed in fits and starts. But until its waters were tamed in the 20th century—by dams, canals and increasingly sophisticated irrigation ditches—the river would also overflow its banks and swell across the wide floodplain.

Those floods could wreak havoc on settlements and inundate farmland. But they also nurtured native fish species, gave birth to the cottonwood forests and helped push the river toward the sea. Today, the river is constricted and controlled, sucked dry by the demands of irrigators and cities and prevented from navigating new channels.

As drought continues and climate change ramps up, the “Big River” is on its way to being the first of many climate casualties in New Mexico. And unless we all reconnect to Rio Grande—recognize its importance as a living river—our grandchildren might not know it as a force of nature…

The numbers are sobering. But they shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Climate scientists have long been warning that the southwestern United States will experience warmer temperatures.

Authors of the National Climate Assessment’s 2013 report noted that in the Southwest, the period since 1950 has been warmer than any period of comparable length in at least 600 years and that recent flows in the four major drainage basins of the Southwest, including the Rio Grande, have been lower than their 20th century averages. The report predicts continued warming, a decrease in late-season snowpack and continued declines in river flows and soil moisture.

From the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the New Mexico Environment Department, everyone has been issuing warnings about New Mexico’s water future.

During the Bill Richardson administration, the New Mexico Environment Department released a report detailing the potential effects of climate change on water resources, infrastructure, agriculture, natural systems, outdoor recreation tourism, environmental quality and health, low-income communities and communities of color and Native American communities.

Now, we’re starting the new year with the second term of a Republican governor owned lock-stock-and-two-loaded-barrels by the Oil Patch Boys. She cares more about engineering a gerrymandered electorate with a predictably complex photo ID system that satisfies both Homeland Insecurity and the Koch Bros.

Lip service is about as close as New Mexicans can get to acknowledgement of climate change from Governor Susana. Especially since she’s probably hoping to be the first Hispanic woman vice-presidential candidate.

The Democrats who remain in charge of the State Senate aren’t likely to be any more courageous than their cousins in Congress.

RTFA, though. It offers a detailed and well-described look along the course of the Rio and its decline.

32 thoughts on “Are we approaching EOL? The end-of-life for the Rio Grande?

    • UpDate says:

      A June 2014 petition from Taos-based Amigos Bravos alleged that runoff pollution from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the surrounding community contributes to violations of state water quality standards, including those for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenals), copper, zinc and nickel.
      The EPA’s recent preliminary finding on the Amigos Bravos petition says that pollution in Los Alamos runoff discharges “result in or have the potential to result in” exceeding water quality standards “or other significant water quality impacts such as habitat and biological impacts.”
      The EPA also found that Los Alamos canyons are “impaired” with radioactive materials and some other contaminants.
      PCBs, one of the contaminants mentioned in the Amigos Bravos petition, are man-made chemicals used in electrical equipment and whose manufacture has been banned since 1979. They are probable human carcinogens, according to the EPA.
      The federal agency noted that the New Mexico Environment Department has found that “levels of PCBs in Sandia Canyon below much of the urbanized areas at LANL to be over 14,000 times greater than the New Mexico Human Health water quality criteria and 66 times greater than the New Mexico Wildlife Habitat water quality criteria.”
      The Los Alamos lab property is of particular concern, states the EPA’s document. The “LANL property contains all or parts of seven primary watersheds that drain directly into the Rio Grande,” the document said.

      • Update says:

        LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — Environmental groups are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over storm water contamination downstream of Los Alamos National Laboratory.
        The groups claim the runoff contains heavy metals, byproducts from decaying radioactive elements and manmade chemicals known as PCBs. They say some of the pollutants are more than 10,000 times public safety limits and should be considered a threat to public health.
        In a complaint filed late Monday, the groups say the pollution should have triggered federal action to reduce or eliminate discharges through permit requirements but that the EPA failed to act.

    • Update says:

      Los Alamos Monitor (7/1/16) Department of Energy contractors will start removing toxic contaminated soil along the south-facing slopes of Los Alamos Canyon next week, as part of a program to clean up legacy waste sites in Los Alamos. The contaminated soil is mostly leftover from the Manhattan Project and early Cold War research activities from 1943–1965. Work is scheduled to begin on the canyon’s south-facing slopes near the location of the former Los Alamos Inn, which was located at 2201 Trinity Ave, near the Los Alamos Medical Center. The contaminated soils will be temporarily stored at Tech Area 21 and moved to a more permanent area once tested. The work will include five sites in a one-acre area. About 125 cubic yards of soil is scheduled to be moved. One of the five sites sites contain arsenic and the other four are contaminated with Plutonium 2399240.
      Santa Fe New Mexican (July 4, 2016) “…Some American Indian tribes near Los Alamos have long complained about contamination related to decades of bomb-making and nuclear research. New Mexico regulators identified as a priority a plume of chromium contamination near San Ildefonso Pueblo, for example.
      ☛ Groundwater sampling shows increasing chromium concentrations at the edges of the plume, indicating it’s migrating through an area considered sacred by the tribe and closer to the Rio Grande, which provides drinking water to communities throughout the region.
      The plume has stretched about 1 mile into the upper part of the regional aquifer, and is about a half-mile wide and 100 feet thick.”

    • Update says:

      Los Alamos Monitor (6/2/17) Plans are underway by the Los Alamos National Laboratory to head off a potential threat to an aquifer that lies mostly under Mortandad Canyon. The plans call for the filling and capping of 26 abandoned testing wells in Los Alamos Canyon, Sandia Canyon, Mortandad Canyon, Pajarito Canyon and Tech Area 35. By filling and capping the wells, LANL seeks to prevent any further contamination to the area. Part of the problem is that the depth of some of the wells and boreholes is unknown, also the existence of some of the wells was not known till recently. Toxic runoff from lab activities through the years have found their way into the canyons. Mortandad Canyon is the site of a chromium plume that was discovered in 2005. Between 1956 and 1972 LANL flushed water and chromium (an anti-corrosive) through cooling towers located in Sandia Canyon. The chromium eventually found its way into the Mortandad aquifer. A 2006 study prepared by the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Amigos Bravos identified at 1,405 sites contaminated by LANL waste found in stormwater runoff, including the canyons the wells are located in.

  1. Eulogy says:

    “This planet is run by crazy people. Remember what they have to do to get where they are. Their perspective is so narrow, so…brief. A few years. In the best of them a few decades. They care only about the time they are in power.” Carl Edward Sagan, “Contact” (novel), 1985. Chapter 23 (p. 403).

  2. Press release says:

    “Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of precipitation that becomes streamflow in the Upper Rio Grande watershed has fallen more steeply than at any point in at least 445 years, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
    While this decline was driven in part by the transition from an unusually wet period to an unusually dry period, rising temperatures deepened the trend, the researchers said.
    The study paints a detailed picture of how temperature has affected the runoff ratio — the amount of snow and rain that actually makes it into the river — over time, and the findings could help improve water supply forecasts for the Rio Grande, which is a source of water for an estimated 5 million people.
    The study results also suggest that runoff ratios in the Upper Rio Grande and other neighboring snow-fed watersheds, such as the Colorado River Basin, could decline further as the climate continues to warm.” The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was funded by the Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Science Foundation, which is NCAR’s sponsor.

  3. Oyez says:

    This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion on Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado.
    The high court will allow the United States to intervene on the water case on the Rio Grande and pursue claims under the Rio Grande Compact.
    In 2013, Texas sued the upstream states of New Mexico and Colorado, alleging that by allowing farmers in southern New Mexico to pump from groundwater wells near the Rio Grande, New Mexico has failed to send its legal share of water downstream. During oral arguments before the court earlier this year, the U.S. government argued that New Mexico was also harming its ability to deliver water under the compact, as well as under its international treaty with Mexico.
    And now, the high court agrees the U.S. can pursue this claim in the case.

  4. Mayordomo says:

    Without explanation, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday abruptly discharged New Orleans lawyer A. Gregory Grimsal as special master in Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, an original jurisdiction case currently before the court. The unusual order from the court said Grimsal, a member at the firm Gordon Arata Montgomery Barnett, was “hereby discharged with the thanks of the court,” and replaced by Senior Judge Michael Melloy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Neither Grimsal nor court officials would comment on the reasoning behind the dismissal.
    Stuart Somach, a shareholder at Somach Simmons & Dunn in California, counsel of record for Texas, said the discharge of Grismal “came as a surprise” to him and other parties involved, including the United States, an intervenor in the case.
    Melloy is a senior U.S. Circuit Court Judge on the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. President George H.W. Bush appointed him to his first federal judicial position in 1992, and President George W. Bush appointed him to the appeals court in 2002.
    Special Masters are appointed to conduct extensive research on cases and make recommendations to the court.
    Meanwhile, it’s only April and a stretch of the Rio Grande has already dried up Since 1996, the Middle Rio Grande has often dried during the summer, sometimes for stretches of 30, 50 or even 90 miles. But drying in early April is nearly unprecedented in the river’s recorded history.

  5. Cassandra says:

    “In a Warming West, the Rio Grande Is Drying Up” (NYT 5/25/18) “Temperatures in the Southwest increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit (one degree Celsius) from 1901 to 2010, and some climate models forecast a total rise of six degrees or more by the end of this century. As elsewhere in the West, warmer temperatures in winter mean that more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains that feed the Rio Grande.”
    See Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States (2013)

  6. Norteño says:

    Actor and author Will Rogers once famously described the Rio Grande in the 1930s as “the only river I saw that needed irrigation.”
    “That’s kind of what we’re doing,” said Mike Hamman, CEO and chief engineer at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), as he described how the district is working to ensure water remains flowing in the Rio Grande in what’s shaping up to be one of the driest years for the river in decades.
    The MRGCD is a member of the 2016 Biological Opinion partners, a group of entities that have agreed to manage the river in a way that doesn’t jeopardize three threatened and endangered species that are dependent on the river for survival. Under that framework, the MRGCD helps manage water coming from different sources as it moves through the MRGCD system.
    Part of that agreement includes putting water back into the river downstream, essentially “irrigating” it.

    “Road trip along the Rio Grande: A wild and troubled landscape : An exploration of the river in New Mexico shows the value of preservation—and how much more needs to be done.” (National Geographic)

  7. Norteño says:

    (Oct 15, 2020): The Rio Grande in Albuquerque continues to trickle to its lowest levels since the 1970s. Those low flows have come even though irrigation season ended early, and water isn’t being diverted from the river channel for farms right now.
    In southern New Mexico, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District—which runs south of Caballo Reservoir and through Hatch into Mesilla—is warning that 2021 could be the worst year in the Rio Grande Project’s history, given the lack of water in storage and forecasts for La Niña conditions this winter. According to the story at KRWG:
    EBID’s Board of Directors and staff are being forced to consider the dire possibility of a zero allotment in 2021. [Phil] King warns, “At this point, it would be prudent for farmers in EBID to prepare for a late start to the surface water season – perhaps the beginning of June – and a very short season. Without a major improvement in upstream drought conditions, the 2021 available allotment to EBID farmers could be as bad as it was in 2011 (4 inches) or 2013 (3.5 inches), or worse.”×592.webp

  8. Update says:

    Groundwater provides an important source of irrigation for farmers in southern New Mexico, but Texas alleges that New Mexico’s use of groundwater below Elephant Butte reservoir has reduced surface water in the Rio Grande that is available for farmers downstream.
    Texas filed a lawsuit in 2013 before the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico has violated the Rio Grande Compact, which dates back to the 1930s. This week, special master Judge Michael Melloy heard witness testimony and opening arguments during the first week of a virtual trial. Melloy is tasked with compiling a report for the U.S. Supreme Court.

  9. Mayordomo says:

    State Engineer John D’Antonio, New Mexico’s top water official, submitted his resignation and will retire next month, citing a lack of financial support to protect the state’s water resources.
    His departure comes as New Mexico faces litigation with Texas over Rio Grande water rights, record-low reservoirs and water scarcity exacerbated by drought and climate change.

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