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2021 drought ‘a harbinger of what is coming’ for El Paso area water management

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For now, the Rio Grande outside El Paso is a bare sandbed stretching miles, but in a couple days there’ll be water running in it again, albeit later than usual.

For the people, wildlife and farmers that depend on the river, the annual release of water from Caballo Dam over Memorial Day to replenish the river is a welcome event. The water will move from storage in Elephant Butte Reservoir and travel 125 miles south to El Paso. From there, it winds into the desert in a pattern developed over decades. 

There have been bad water years before, with the droughts in the 1950s, and there have been good water years too, such as a period in the 1980s and ‘90s where Elephant Butte Reservoir was at capacity, and water had to be sent downstream. Surface water is a renewable source and over decades shows highs and lows.

Today’s low water is different. 

Experts say river policy, management, the future of water use, and conservation are tangled up in the new reality: there’s less water in the river. 

The Rio Grande

On a map, the river is a ribbon carving its way through the land starting in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and ending 1,885 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. 

But it’s more complicated than that, said Phil King, a professor and associate head of the Civil Engineering Department at New Mexico State University. 

The Rio Grande often dies in the desert southeast of El Paso. Much of the water flowing down into the Gulf of Mexico is water from the Rio Conchos, which starts in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. 

The Rio Conchos flows onto the U.S. side at Presidio and follows the Rio Grande riverbed to Brownsville. Occasionally, when the river has strong flows, it will “break through” down to the Gulf, King said, but that’s not often the case anymore. 

“This is what’s called the ‘lost reach’ between somewhere out here in the desert and the confluence with the Rio Conchas,” King said.

High water marks are visible on the rock formation that gave Elephant Butte its name. The reservoir is currently at about 9% capacity and will drop further as the dam releases water. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In the last few years, the river has been drying out farther north. A concerning 28-mile stretch grew just south of Albuquerque in April 2018, when the river should’ve been high. 

“We have a long history of cyclical droughts in New Mexico and in West Texas. And what we’re experiencing now is certainly the drought side of that cycle,” King said. 

Warmer temperatures lead to a drying out of the soil, which absorbs more water, and prevents it from traveling downstream. Climate change also means less snowfall to replenish the river. 

All of this spells trouble for the millions of people who live in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico who are impacted by interstate and international water-sharing agreements that were developed in wetter conditions in the 1920s and 1930s.

“We’re on a different planet at this point,” King said.

The management

The water’s movement is interrupted by a series of federal dams and canals that make up the Rio Grande Project, which was started in the 1910s, partly as a way to deliver water promised to Mexico in a 1906 treaty.

Allocation of water in the river is governed by the Rio Grande Compact, an agreement written and formalized between 1929 to 1938, and later ratified by Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and the U.S. Congress. 

King, who also consults for Elephant Butte Irrigation District, compared the Rio Grande Project to “hardware” that delivers the water while the compact is the agreement on how much is allocated. 

Texas, Mexico and Southern New Mexico’s water is stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir. The treaty requires that Mexico receive 60,000 acre-feet of water annually, except in the case of “extraordinary drought,” which goes undefined. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

A family wades in the Rio Grande at Caballo Lake State Park in New Mexico. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In April, Elephant Butte only held about 220,000 acre-feet of water, about 11% of its 2 million acre-feet capacity.

King said the current level is due to three main causes: severe drought, a drier climate and a lack of normal deliveries to the reservoir from New Mexico. 

New Mexican irrigation districts upstream of Elephant Butte are in water debt and currently owe nearly 96,000 acre-feet, or more than 31 billion gallons, to the reservoir for allocation to Texas.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, the country’s largest water wholesaler, estimated “a near-record low allocation for 2021” resulting in a shorter irrigation season that begins June 1 and will last only six to eight weeks. 

That means farmers in Southern New Mexico and El Paso County could receive as few as four and 13 inches of irrigation water, respectively. That’s compared to the 40 or so inches allotted in an “average” year in both areas. 

Jesús “Chuy” Reyes, the general manager for El Paso County Water Improvement District, said drier conditions mean shorter irrigation seasons. 

“When we have full allocations, we usually start the first or second week of March, bringing water down,” he said. “That’s when the cotton farmer needs to wet (their) grounds in order to plant in April.” 

The district has 32,000 irrigation accounts, including “everything from small, quarter-acre (areas) up to large 3,000-acre farms,” Reyes said. The last full allotment was in 2020, but only because the irrigation district banked water from 2019. 

There was some water banked again, which accounts for a higher allotment and a longer run time into August. 

“It’s been a roller coaster, you never know how much snow you’re gonna get,” he said. “When will the runoff start? Will it be strong? Will it get down to Elephant Butte? All of it all plays a role.”

Gary Esslinger, the manager for the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said this year compares to bad drought years in 2011 and 2013. 

He said it’s going to be a “challenging” year for people who grow pecans, chile and other crops. but said he’s hopeful rainfall during monsoon season, which runs from June through September, will offset the 35-day irrigation period. 

“We’ve done a lot to prepare for droughts like this. But unfortunately, when you’re right in the middle of them, you never know what’s going to come around the corner,” he said.

Low in the water

Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs are teeming on the weekends with fishers, swimmers, boats and jet skis. 

Letty Ewing recently brought her daughter and grandsons up from El Paso to Elephant Butte, carrying on a family tradition by the water. 

“We try to come to the lake about three or four times a year. And we either go fishing, camping, boating or we go to the river,” Ewing said. 

Letty Ewing, of El Paso, visits Elephant Butte Reservoir with her daughter and grandchildren for boating and fishing. Ewing fondly remembers time spent with her family on the Rio Grande and at the reservoir as a child and has concerns about the future of water in the region. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

She said she’s noticed lower waters, not just at the Butte but for her farm in Fabens, where she rotates chile, cotton and alfalfa alongside a small grove of pecans. She said the water is a place for family, but the source for survival.

“It’s a resource for entertainment, but of course vital for our farms,” she said. 

Neal Brown, who owns the two marinas on the reservoir, said the water is the lifeblood of his business, and this year looks dire for both.

“Normally it’s not an issue. This year, they’re like looking at basically draining the lake to almost nothing,” he said. “It could potentially force me to close the marinas.”

He said this process could also mean all the 200-odd slip customers would pull their boats out, possibly not coming back, and the marinas would have to be unmoored and towed to deeper parts of the reservoir, a process that costs thousands of dollars. 

But it’s not just a business problem. Waterfowl like cormorants skim the surface, and grebes slip deep beneath the surface to hunt fish. The last time the reservoir dropped to 3% in 2018, Brown said there was a serious fish kill. 

“It was a big stinkin’ mess,” he said. 

Going to ground(water)

Less precipitation and drier conditions aren’t the only causes of reduced river levels. An increased dependence on groundwater can also impact a river’s ability to move water downstream. 

Groundwater is pumped from aquifers below the earth’s surface and increased usage can deplete those supplies. As it moves downstream, river water can sink to recharge those depleted groundwater supplies. 

“The recharge is reduced by the short surface water supply,” King said. “People have less surface water, so they want more groundwater. It’s the proverbial double whammy.”

Irrigation is not the sole pull on the river. Municipalities like Albuquerque and El Paso use both groundwater and surface water for city needs. 

The bed of the Rio Grande is dry at the State Highway 154 bridge near Rincon, N.M., on May 22. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

John Balliew, the CEO of El Paso Water, said the city currently receives about 40% of its water supply from the river, 5% from desalination and the rest from groundwater. 

“The groundwater that we have here has a lack of recharge, it’s not sustainable. So that’s essentially mining it,” he said. “We have to reverse that course, we start adding water to it, using brackish water, using conservation to stop mining the groundwater.”

Balliew said the city is pushing to store water underground, and turn “water mining into a sustainable proposition.” 

“The water was deposited in conditions that don’t exist anymore, that haven’t existed for tens of thousands of years,” he said. “If we want that (supply) to go up, we have to artificially add water to the aquifer.”

The future

Balliew said the future of El Paso’s water 50 years from now will possibly include using reclaimed water and considering importing 13% of water, which can be more costly. 

“We need to be prepared to operate our water utility without any water coming out of the Rio Grande because that is what is subject to the climatic conditions,” Balliew said. “We need to be able to operate without that source of supply.” 

David Gutzler, a professor who studies climatology and meteorology at the University of New Mexico, said major cities in the Southwest, like Albuquerque, Phoenix and El Paso, have made strides in water conservation, and have the ability to be more “resilient” by diversifying water supplies.

Agriculture, he said, has a much greater struggle over the next 25 years. 

“It’s not up to guys like me to tell farmers how to do their business, they’re the farmers,” Gutzler said. “But the lever that they have to manage their water supply is to choose how much to plant and what to plant — but it’s not like they’re going to choose to do farming without water.”

Water rushes through the Caballo Dam into the Rio Grande in New Mexico on Monday. The dam was opened to release water to southern New Mexico and El Paso. El Paso Water officials say the city can’t count on these releases in the future. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

He said it would be hard for individual farmers to bear costs for groundwater purification, and continued warming predictions mean surface water will be harder to access in the future. 

“A year like this is a harbinger of what is coming. This is a really bad year in a historic drought,” he said. “Thinking about how to deal with a really bad drought year, like this one, is the kind of thinking we’ll need to employ moving forward.”

Cover photo: The bed of the Rio Grande is dry at the State Highway 154 bridge near Rincon, N.M., on May 22, but will fill with water in the coming days as water is released from upstream dams. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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