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Rio Grande could join 'ghost rivers' of the Southwest

The Rio Grande ran low and dry this year.  That was bad news for fish and for farmers. And it’s unlikely that relief is in sight: Reservoirs are low and climate change is here.

In the second of this two part series, KUNM  takes a look at the Rio Grande—which one advocate worries might someday be a “ghost river.”

Janet Jarratt runs a dairy in Valencia County, south of Albuquerque. Farmers work harder than anyone she knows.  And making a living is even tougher during dry years, she says, when farmers don’t know if they’ll get their water.

People irrigating fields, orchards, and lawns in the Middle Rio Grande Valley have suffered delivery problems for decades, she says. More recently, river drying has caused new problems.  “It really does bring water issues to a head for anybody who needs water and certainly there are a lot of us that depend upon it solely for our living,” she says. “It isn’t just about turning on the tap. It’s about being able to maintain a cultural and historical setting into the future.”

That’s why she and other farmers are suing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District—which delivers irrigation water in the valley. For the second year in a row, she says, water deliveries were cut short.

“Anytime you have curtailment of irrigation season, it limits the options for what you can do with your land for this year and subsequent years, and it generally has ongoing multiyear impacts,” Jarratt says.

But Tom Thorpe , spokesman for the Conservancy District says they never withheld water from farmers. No one was prevented from irrigating, he says---and if there were restrictions in the amount of water delivered, that’s because less water was available.  

And water problems aren’t likely to end next year—or the year after that. David Gutzler is a professor in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of New Mexico.  “We are seeing the climate changing in the data,” he says. “There is nothing hypothetical about long-term warming and the consequences of that.”

No one can point to a dry riverbed and just blame it on climate change. Too many things affect the river’s flows and the region’s weather patterns, he says.

“However,” he says, “as the climate warms up slowly from decade to decade, we expect that warming to have an effect on streamflow as well, mostly toward lower flows.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working on its next ten-year plan for the silvery minnow, that troubled fish trying to make in the river near Albuquerque.

It was the Service’s 2003 plan that kept water running here, while the river dried to the south. That plan expires in a few months.

Officials wouldn’t talk about the plan. But everyone in the water community—water mangers, farmers, environmentalists--is wondering if the agency will say water needs to keep flowing for the minnow. Or if it will back off.

“My fear is that we will get a new framework that does very little to address the river’s needs,” says John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.

On the north side of Albuquerque, the river is running. It’s low, but at least it’s moving. Ducks waddle through the shallow water, and killdeer search the sandbars for bugs.

Horning says the river’s only de facto rights to its own water are because of the Endangered Species Act .

“Fish can’t live without water and the silvery minnow needs a healthy, vital Rio Grande in order to survive,” he says.

During this time—with a new plan in the works and everyone worrying about drought—he wishes a new conservation ethic would emerge. About 80 percent of the state’s water goes to agriculture.  Surely, he says, people can be more efficient. And then those water savings could be applied toward the river.

Or, he says, the federal or state government could buy water from farmers—farmers who are willing to sell and in some cases are selling to cities—and then keep it in the river.

“Unless and until this river has a secure right to its own water that’s respected by the state of New Mexico, the farmers and cities, this river is going to continue to have a downward spiral,” he says.

Many western states, including Colorado, have legalized "instream water rights." These laws give rivers some rights to their own water.

Without its own water rights, Horning doesn’t see the Rio Grande in New Mexico lasting much past the middle of this century. “Look at Rio Grande in El Paso, look at the Gila River in Phoenix, the Salt River in Phoenix, the LA River in Los Angeles,” he says. “There is a long litany of southwestern rivers that have already been killed, that have become ghost rivers.”

The future of the river is uncertain. And so, too, are the futures of farmers and anyone else depending on the waters of the Rio Grande. A few things aren’t uncertain, however: climate change is here—and water managers have their work cut out for them.  

To listen to part one of the series, visit here.

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