ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Colorado River tributaries in New Mexico bring water to the alfalfa fields in the Four Corners and the forested hills of the Gila wilderness in the southwestern part of the state.
Colorado River and reservoir management was designed during a much wetter period, and now, water officials are grappling with how to make do with less.
State Engineer Mike Hamman, New Mexico’s top water manager, said the state “really feels the shortages” because it doesn’t have the big reservoirs of other states in the Colorado River Basin.
“That’s the dilemma — looking at how we can reduce demand with as soft a blow as possible,” Hamman said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River on the eve of the Colorado River Compact, signed nearly 100 years ago. The Colorado Sun, The Associated Press, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.
'Limited' conservation options
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton this year tasked Colorado River states with creating an ambitious conservation plan.
Touton said the states need to conserve an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water next year to protect levels at Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona.
A basinwide conservation plan had not materialized by the mid-August deadline.
Nevada, Arizona and Mexico will all receive less water from the Colorado River next year because of rapidly declining reservoirs, the Interior Department announced Aug. 16.
Interior officials did not issue any mandatory water cuts for New Mexico, but the state’s existing water conservation programs could be under increased scrutiny.
The Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming did release a five-point plan this summer that points to the region’s “limited” conservation options.
For two years, the states have released additional water from at least three reservoirs — including New Mexico’s Navajo Reservoir — to prop up Lake Powell levels. Those Upper Basin reservoir releases will likely continue next year, Interior officials said.
A more arid climate means all water users need to work harder to “live within our means,” said Estevan López, New Mexico’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
“It certainly seems that we have to reset our expectations for what we might be trying to get out of the river,” said López, a former Reclamation commissioner.
In 2021, water managers considered releasing even more water from Navajo Reservoir to help water levels in downstream reservoirs, but López said the additional release could have jeopardized regional water supplies.
“Ultimately, we argued against it,” he said. “Reclamation would perhaps not have been able to fulfill its contractual obligations to folks like the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache and others that depend on water out of Navajo.”
The same issues could resurface next year if officials look to the New Mexico reservoir as an emergency supply for downstream users.
Albuquerque's water supply
The Upper Basin plan hinges on existing conservation programs. Strategies include fallowing fields and making irrigation more efficient. But the entire region must work together to avoid more mandatory cuts, López said.
“If we can get water users within places like the San Juan Basin to agree to shortage sharing agreements, then there’s no need for strict priority administration,” he said. “It’s a more acceptable solution, generally.”
Colorado River tributaries serve relatively small portions of northwest and southwest New Mexico, but the basin’s water is essential for the state’s largest city: Albuquerque.
Rio Grande flows in Albuquerque are closely tied to the Colorado via the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project. The system of tunnels and dams at the New Mexico state line diverts water into the Rio Grande Basin.
Albuquerque’s municipal supply is entitled to as much as 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water every year.
David Morris, the water utility spokesman for the city and county, said Colorado River water has allowed the region to wean itself off of unsustainable groundwater pumping. Since 2008, aquifer levels underneath the city have rebounded as much as 40 feet.
“That’s exactly what we were hoping that our use of surface water would allow the aquifer to do,” Morris said. “We’re in a very fortunate situation here in Albuquerque to have two different and distinct sources of supply.”
But less snowpack and spring runoff resulting from climate change have led to several consecutive years when the utility and other New Mexico entities have received far less water than expected from the inter-basin project.
“It’s important for us to invest in things like outdoor water conservation and reuse,” Morris said. “It’s quite possible that there just won’t be as much San Juan-Chama water available in the future because of drought and climate change.”
Tribal water rights
The Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 — just 10 years after New Mexico became a state.
New Mexico still uses only about half of its allotment under the compact each year. That could change as more tribes reach water rights settlements and build out infrastructure to use those rights.
Agencies are making progress on large projects to deliver water to Navajo communities in western New Mexico.
A resilient future on the Colorado must have tribal sovereignty at the forefront, said Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation water administrator and a staunch advocate for tribal inclusion in water management issues.
“The term ‘consultation’ gets thrown around in the basin a whole lot,” Vigil said. “But if you know one tribe, you only know one tribe. Having a seat at the table means working with every tribe to learn their specific water rights and needs.”
The U.S. Interior Department has said it will engage with tribes in the basin as parties hammer out some management details of the compact that are set to expire after 2026.
A historic influx of funding for infrastructure and drought response could also help New Mexico and other basin states reduce water use and prepare for a drier future.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to sort through some of these more sticky problems with a good collaborative solution,” Hamman said.
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