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Low Flows on the Rio Grande

KUNM/Laura Paskus

Here, where the Alameda Bridge crosses the Rio Grande on the north side of Albuquerque, you can see what New Mexico’s weak monsoon season looks like on the ground.

The water is braided around sandbars and islands. It’s so shallow that even where the river is flowing, sand is visible just a few inches below the surface. Two Canada Geese honk beneath the bridge, then take off. When they land again, their feet are barely covered by the water.

Just downstream from here is where the City of Albuquerque normally draws water for its four-year old drinking water project--a project meant to lessen impacts on groundwater.

But right now, the Rio Grande is so low that the city has had to stop taking water from the river and switch back to groundwater pumps.  John Stomp, Water Resources Manager at the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, sums up the water situation in the Middle Rio Grande: “It’s bleak, I would say. It’s really bleak.”

Stomp explains that when the drinking water project was designed, engineers knew that low water levels might sometimes shut down the plant.  But, he says, no one thought that would happen in the first five years. “That’s just the way the water supply is in the Middle Rio Grande right now. There just isn’t a lot going on right now,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll get a big snowpack next year and start to change things around here.”

Last month, the local irrigation district also ran out of water. That is, it ran out of water it had stored in an upstream reservoir.

This means that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District has stopped releasing water into the Rio Grande. But it’s still taking water out of the river, moving it into ditches, and delivering it to people who irrigate their lawns, fields, and gardens.

“We’re still diverting what water we can,” says Tom Thorpe, public information officer for the conservancy district. “Irrigation season is still underway, it runs until about October 31st.”

The federal government is having to release water and keep it flowing through Albuquerque—just enough water to keep water in the river for the silvery minnow, an endangered fish.

Meanwhile, the city will likely see a repeat of last year—and have to rely on groundwater for about a month. And with this year’s weak monsoon season fizzling out before filling the state’s rivers, that means everyone will be watching for the winter’s snows.