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Early snowfall levels prompt concerns about sinking Rio Grande water levels

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Unseasonably warm temperatures and low chances of significant winter precipitation have deepened concerns among regional water experts and farmers that extended drought conditions will compound stress on the Rio Grande, a key source of water for wildlife, agriculture and the city of El Paso.

Climate change has already decreased snowfall levels in the mountains and raised temperatures in the region. But even by those new standards, experts say it’s going to continue to be hotter and drier.

Warm temperatures across the West are bad news for snowpacks in New Mexico and Colorado, an essential source of water for the Rio Grande.

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Alex Mayer, director at the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso, said he’s watching for drought impacts to the Rio Grande, the sole regional source of surface water for irrigation and a significant portion of El Paso’s drinking water.

“We’re most concerned with the headwaters of the Rio Grande, where the snowpack is,” Mayer said. “The vast majority of the river water that does reach us comes from that snowmelt in the southern Colorado, northern New Mexico headwaters.”

The Crestones, a group of four 14,000-foot peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado, has relatively little snowpack this fall, a warning that the Rio Grande could see much less water in the spring. (Chris Lopez/Alamosa Citizen)

Mayer said the season could still see storms, but the chances are low for the near future. Predictions from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expect hotter and dry conditions for at least the next month, raising alarms for the snowpack’s chances.

“I’d say we have many months to go before we can say it’s been as bad a drought year as last year,” Mayer said. “It’s still early, but the current conditions aren’t great.”

Late freeze

El Paso hasn’t seen a freeze in the metro area, which the National Weather Service El Paso office measures at the airport.

“Overall, it’s quite rare to go this late in the season,” meteorologist Joel DeLizio said. “Shows how warm it’s been.”

El Paso historically gets its first fall freeze by mid-November, according to National Weather Service records. The latest first fall freeze on record was on Dec. 20, 1939, though records also list a first seasonal freeze in January of an unspecified year.

DeLizio said the spate of warm temperatures may finally change Friday or Saturday. The forecast calls for lows in the mid-30s, still above freezing.

Low snowpack

Karl Wetlaufer, a hydrologist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, monitors and measures snowpack in Colorado to forecast the spring and summer runoff downstream.Wetlaufer said Rio Grande headwaters in Southern Colorado have seen 55% of the normal amount of rain and snow in October and November, and the snowpacks are only 30% of their normal size.

Wetlaufer said it’s early in the season as the peak snowpack usually develops through April. But even large snowpacks may not be enough to move the Rio Grande out of its water deficit. The hot and dry summers suck the moisture out of the soils, and absorbing snow melt before it makes it into a river channel compounds the drought conditions further,Wetlaufer said.

He used a simple analogy: If there is 100% of snowpack there is nearly 100% more water in the river, but the dry soil can absorb 20% or more. That means the river would only be 80% higher.

The Rio Grande riverbed outside of Rincon, N.M., before the spring water release from Elephant Butte Reservoir. Warm temperatures and little forecasted snow are raising alarms for how much water the river may see in 2022. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

With two dry and hot years in a row, that translates to less snowmelt for the Rio Grande.

“We are going into winter with pretty considerable drought conditions,” Wetlaufer said. “We’re definitely anticipating streamflow to be much, much lower than usual relative to whatever snowpack we do see in the mountains.”

Federal forecast predictions show Colorado and New Mexico will most likely see warmer, drier conditions through February due to the La Niña weather pattern. La Niña describes a cooling of ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that shapes weather around the world.

John Fleck, a professor in the Water Resources Program at the University of New Mexico, said La Niña shifts the odds against a wet winter in the West.

“It’s like we’re playing with a loaded dice, and it’s more likely to come up dry this winter,” Fleck said.

The warmer weather has also disrupted local and regional farmers’ growing and harvest schedules.

Shannon Ivey, a pecan farmer and president of the Texas Pecan Growers Association, said the late freeze means a late harvest for pecan growers in El Paso County. Ivey, who owns a 575-acre orchard in Tornillo, said the Wichita and Western pecan harvest times vary between Thanksgiving and Christmas because of snow or rain delays. Trees are just starting to lose their leaves.

“It’s unusually late for just waiting for a freeze,” Ivey said. “For how dry it’s been normally, we’d be blowing and going and have started shaking by Thanksgiving or just after.”

Orlando Flores, an El Paso County extension agent with Texas A&M AgriLife, said the high temperatures caused some unseasonal growth for other crops.

“I saw people baling alfalfa just this morning,” Flores said. “Normally, you’re done cutting and baling by October, because the alfalfa goes dormant for the winter after it freezes.”

Looking ahead

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation office in Albuquerque manages Elephant Butte Lake, which stores Rio Grande water for downstream use in southern New Mexico, Chihuahua and El Paso.

Carolyn Donnelly, the water operations supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation, said the federal agency will start considering how much water will be allocated to Mexico and the irrigation districts in February.

“As grim as it looks right now, it could turn around, as it’s still early in the season,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly noted the forecast for high temperatures and low snowpacks mirrors a similar bad drought year in 2013, but with one key difference.

“We had more (water in) storage going into 2013,” Donnelly said. Elephant Butte is currently at only 16% of a 2-million acre-foot capacity.

Elephant Butte Dam sits next to the namesake butte in the reservoir that holds the water for downstream users in Chihuahua, Southern New Mexico and Far West Texas. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Gary Esslinger, the manager at Elephant Butte Irrigation District, said it’s a waiting game until January, when the irrigation district meets with New Mexican farmers. Esslinger said growers may have to depend on groundwater for a longer period next year.

“With the water in the lake right now, it doesn’t look like we can even make a April or May irrigation run unless we get a huge series of storm events,” Esslinger said.

Flores, with the El Paso extension, said farmers have concerns for another year in drought.

“It’s very concerning, I know people say ‘I’ve never known a year like this’ year after year, but I just don’t remember it being this bad,” Flores said. “It’s been very tough to farm.”

Cover photo: Grasses grow in the dry Rio Grande riverbed north of El Paso. (Danielle Prokop/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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