On February 1, 2023, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, the State Engineer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District reported on their joint efforts to reduce Rio Grande water losses between San Acacia and the Elephant Butte Reservoir.
The effort is being driven by the needs of endangered species in a more-often drying river, and the requirements of the Rio Grande Compact. The Compact is a 1939 agreement among CO, NM, TX and Mexico, on how to share the river’s waters. Two key aspects of the Compact were cited. First, the low level of storage in Elephant Butte (below 400,000 acre feet) disallows upstream storage that is needed for non-Native irrigators through summer months. Second, several consecutive years of substantial under-deliveries to the Reservoir have left New Mexico close to the Compact violation threshold (200,000 acre feet cumulative debt).
The state agencies identified a 5-year, 30 million dollar appropriation that will enable them to “conduct river channel maintenance, habitat restoration, low flow conveyance channel maintenance, and flood control projects in the San Acacia reach of the Rio Grande to improve flood protection and water deliveries and benefit species and native riparian areas, which all can contribute to New Mexico’s compacts compliance and its Endangered Species Act biological opinion commitments, for expenditure in fiscal years 2023 through 2028.”
The Bureau of Reclamation described several aspects of their plans for flexibility in water operations that will improve conditions for endangered species. They also described alternatives for a project that is in progress to realign the river channel below San Acacia for habitat resilience and water conveyance efficiency. Public input for the scoping of an Environmental Impact Statement on the realignment project will be taken starting in March of 2023.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District described their program for farmers to lease water rights to support species protection. They also described their proposals for capturing drainage water during dry months within an improved operations and maintenance process for the low-flow conveyance channel, all in coordination with the Bureau of Reclamation. This would support the needs of irrigators, the Compact, and endangered species.
While more use-reduction will be needed on the human component, the joint focus of this presentation was addressing the natural component of over-consumption of water in order to bring the Reservoir back to needed levels to allow upstream storage, to remedy the cumulative debit, and to meet the needs of the endangered species.
The 90-minute reporting session video is available for download. The presentation slides from the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission and from the Bureau of Reclamation are also available.