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USBR prepares for another below average water runoff into the Rio Grande

  • USBR prepares for another below average water runoff into the Rio Grande

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Bureau of Reclamation
Reclamation is the largest wholesale water supplier in the United States, and the nation's second largest producer of hydroelectric power. Its facilities also provide substantial flood control, recreation, and fish and wildlife benefits.


Strategic coordination on water operations will again be key along the Rio Grande this summer as water managers prepare for another below average spring runoff amidst continuing drought.

The Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their Annual Operating Plan for the Rio Grande and for the third consecutive year it shows above average snowpack in the mountains. Although the snowpack is measuring as average, the experience from recent years has shown similar conditions to result in a lower runoff. Combined with predictions for hot, dry conditions this summer, it could be another difficult year for water users along the river.

Most reservoirs along the Rio Chama and Rio Grande are holding less than 20% of their capacity heading into the irrigation season, which means there’s very little water in storage to supplement what will flow through the river this year for irrigation, municipalities and recreation.

“Reclamation will continue to work closely with the irrigation districts, states, municipalities, Pueblos, and all other stakeholders to support water uses whenever possible as this megadrought continues,” said Albuquerque Area Office Manager Jennifer Faler. “Reclamation is committed to support a healthy river ecosystem and use every tool in our toolbox to effectively transport the limited water supply.”

At the end of March, snow water equivalent was 97% of median for the Rio Chama Basin, 98% of median for the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 100% of median for the Sangre de Cristos, and 99% of median for the Jemez. Based on these values, the Natural Resources Conservation Service streamflow forecast issued for the month of April predicts that the Rio Chama flow into the El Vado Reservoir will be at 81% of its average, with an inflow of about 150,000 acre-feet of water. This means snowpack in most basins is close to the 20-year average. However, it’s important to note that the 20-year average is now entirely within a drought period.

With construction beginning in the coming month at El Vado Dam, we anticipate moving the water currently being held in the reservoir for the Prior and Paramount lands of the six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Reclamation will bypass Rio Chama flows through El Vado during construction and will also move San Juan-Chama water down the Rio Chama on weekends to allow for summer rafting flows.

If monsoon rains do not materialize, there’s a possibility Elephant Butte Reservoir could get down to about 2% of its capacity by late August, slightly below levels reached in 2013.

Information from Annual Operating Plan:

  • The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District began staggered irrigation operations in April, with natural flow of the Rio Grande.
  • Irrigation diversions in Colorado began on April 1.
  • Due to the expected low runoff, lack of water in storage, as well as a minimal supply of water for Reclamation to lease to supplement river flows, there’s a possibility that some parts of the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque could experience some drying this summer along with sections of the river in the Isleta and San Acacia areas.
    • Reclamation is coordinating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish from drying portions of the river and coordinating with partners to use the limited supply of water most effectively.
  • Rio Grande Project usable storage is currently about 258,000 acre-feet and is expected to peak at about 350,000 acre-feet before declining as irrigation releases start.
    • The irrigation season is scheduled to begin with releases from Elephant Butte Reservoir the first week of May and Caballo Reservoir the first week of June.
    • The dry riverbed between Elephant Butte and Caballo and below Caballo will take on water quickly. As such, it will be both unpredictable and dangerous and the public is asked to exercise caution around the river channel. Water levels will fluctuate through the rest of the short irrigation season.
  • On the Pecos River, basin-wide snow water equivalent was 90% of median on March 31, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service predicted 20,000 acre-feet of inflow to Santa Rosa Reservoir from March to July.
    • The Carlsbad Irrigation District has allocated 1.4 acre-feet per acre.

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