Western Water News

In Driest Year in Half Century, Audubon Releases Water into Rio Grande to Sustain Flows

Flexible tools and timed releases help support people and birds in central New Mexico.

In order to address the Rio Grande’s crippling drought and one of the driest water supplies in over 50 years, Audubon is doing its part to create solutions that work for people and the birds that rely on a healthy flowing river. Through long-term funding support from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Audubon secured 250 acre-feet per year for the next eight years, allowing us to store water during wetter years—such as 2019—and save it for dry times such as now. Indeed, the iconic river in downtown Albuquerque may be dry for the first time since the 1970’s.

This year we are releasing 530 acre-feet of this water into the Rio Grande near Los Lunas, N.M. in an effort that is tightly coordinated with water managers and biologists to ensure effective and efficient use. Through partnerships with water managers, cities, and farmers on the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, Audubon is working on essential solutions to provide water for key sections of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque. These locations are part of the “string of pearls” strategy of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, an innovative water management strategy that takes advantage of irrigation infrastructure to efficiently deliver water to key habitat locations. We believe these partnerships with water managers, cities, and farmers, are essential components of any lasting solutions.

If you asked any Rio Grande water manager in January of this year what this summer would be like for the river, they would likely have said “average”. One expert was quoted as saying that this is “the goldilocks year”—not too wet, not too dry—just right. With a decent snowpack in the upper basin, and regular storms, we all felt that we were in for a decent run-off and a reasonable water supply for our farms, cities and the rivers.

But fast forward four months and—like all things 2020—normalcy is absent from the Rio Grande. We now face a dire situation. The feast or famine water supply cycle for the Rio Grande is nothing new, it’s just that now the feasts are far less frequent and the famines that much harder. And our inability to predict these cycles makes water management more difficult, for human uses, and for the birds like Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

As I write this blog in July 2020, all eyes are toward the southwestern monsoonal season. If the rains come in spates, we could get through 2020 unscathed. If the monsoons sputter, the stresses on our farmers and rivers will be significant.

Resilience is the operative word these days for managing our climate crisis and this year gives our water managers another chance to practice and prepare. Resilience implies an ability to bounce back and absorb stress with critical functions remaining intact.

For our farming communities, this means an ability to manage through crop shortfalls—to come out the other side of 2020 with the farm intact and hope for future revenue. For our river this means an ability to survive drying and associated stresses to riverside plant and animal communities. Along Albuquerque’s Rio Grande, farming and habitat are interconnected. If farmers in the Middle Rio Grande don’t have water, the river drying increases and persists; if the river goes dry in Albuquerque, you can guarantee it that downstream farmers will be looking at unplanned fallowing. Where the false narrative of “fish vs farmer” persists to this day, now is the time to look beyond our silos: we are all impacted by the drying river and only together can we find a way forward for all of the businesses, farms, people and habitats that rely on a flowing Rio Grande.

For information on how you can help the Rio Grande please sign up for the Western Water Action Network.

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