Reminding Reclamation about a Key Issue and an Essential Resource

The Bureau of Reclamation’s proposed plan to evaluate alternatives to reduce the waste of compact delivery water caused by its obsolete infrastructure south of Socorro fails to recognize that meeting New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact delivery obligation is a key issue.  Reclamation also failed to say the Middle Rio Grande’s legally apportioned share of the Rio Grande is a resource requiring protection. To put this into context, I believe the potential annual water savings are of the same magnitude as New Mexico’s recent average annual underdelivery of water to Elephant Butte Reservoir.  

The Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower San Acacia Reach Improvements project is decades overdue. The Rio Grande in the Lower San Acacia Reach is located downstream of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to Elephant Butte Reservoir. The project has multiple goals, including 1) to reduce water convenance depletions in lowest river reach of the Middle Rio Grande that benefit nothing, 2) to improve and maintain the quality of endangered bird habitat for species dependent on quality riparian habitat, and 3) to reduce costs to maintain the river channel and deal with huge sediment inflows to the river.  

In the 1950s and 60s, Reclamation channelized the river in the Middle Rio Grande to reduce depletions that caused New Mexico to violate the Rio Grande Compact soon after it was signed. In the river reach downstream of San Acacia Diversion Dam, located north of Socorro, Reclamation also constructed the Low Flow Conveyance Channel, a deep clear ditch paralleling the river. The resulting reduction of depletions allowed increased water deliveries to Elephant Butte Reservoir, which brought New Mexico back into compliance with its Compact water delivery obligations.

This partially abandoned infrastructure is causing substantially increased depletions, rather than helping to provide Compact water deliveries. Huge sediment inflows from major arroyo flash floods have literally plugged the river channel. The accumulated sediment inflows have substantially raised the river channel so that it is much higher than the adjacent floodplains, causing the confined, manmade river channel to be the highest path through the floodplain. Reclamation has abandoned the low flow conveyance channel. It drains water from the river and never brings it back. Riparian vegetation habitat created by the overflow of water at the end of the channel is growing too old to be attractive to endangered birds for nesting.

After years of study, Reclamation is moving forward to replace and reconfigure this obsolete infrastructure that is damaging nature and wasting water.   The next step is an Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate two potential alternatives against continuing to do nothing.  The alternatives would “move” the river to where it belongs, the lowest path down the floodplain.  The EIS process, which just started, will require many years to complete.

Reclamation listed key issues and important resources that the EIS should consider.  Surprisingly, Reclamation failed to list the limited Rio Grande Compact apportionment to New Mexico for depletion within the Middle Rio Grande as a resource that should be protected. Compliance with the compact delivery requirements is a key issue that the EIS must take into consideration. 

Additionally, Reclamation needs to consider the impacts of its project on water depletions in the Middle Rio Grande in context to Compact delivery requirements, not merely as a number stated without a Middle Rio Grande water budget context.  

Reclamation is required to respond in writing to all public comments it received about the scope of the EIS. Reclamation’s project manager acknowledged receipt of the Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates’ comments. We await Reclamation’s answer.