ALBUQUERUQE, N.M. (AP) — With much of New Mexico still stuck in severe drought, water managers are improving miles of channel along the Rio Grande so more winter and spring runoff can find its way to Elephant Butte Reservoir.
Officials with the Interstate Stream Commission said Friday that maintenance of the 20-mile-long channel is key to getting more water to downstream users. It’s estimated that the channel saves between 10,000 and 20,000 acre-feet of water per year.
“This is roughly equivalent to the amount of water consumed by 4,500 to 9,500 acres of middle valley farmland, annually. That’s a lot of water for our irrigators and other users,” said Commission Director Estevan Lopez.
The channel is an engineered pathway that cuts through the dry portion on the upper end of the reservoir. Without significant natural flows, the channel can get clogged with vegetation if not maintained.
And as the reservoir level drops due to drought, the channel has to be extended to keep the river and reservoir connected.
This year is no exception. Reservoirs around New Mexico have missed out on replenishment thanks to back-to-back years of La Nina weather patterns that have pushed much needed moisture away from the state. In fact, New Mexico received less than two-thirds of its normal precipitation through September.
While it’s rare to have three La Nina years in a row, state and federal water managers say they are preparing for another winter that is likely to be dry.
“It looks like we’re right in the cusp between an El Nino and La Nina for this year and not having fall moisture in the system plays a big role in the amount of runoff you actually see in the river,” Bureau of Reclamation area manager Mike Hamman said, noting the importance of maintaining the channel above Elephant Butte.
Work on the channel — up to 300 feet wide in some spots and 3 to 5 feet deep — is expected to last through January.
Hamman said the Bureau of Reclamation is also working with other agencies to look for ways to maximize storage in upstream reservoirs and to boost river flows next spring to ensure spawning among dwindling populations of endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.