New Mexico Lake Community Raises Alert Over Water Management | News from New Mexico

From THERESA DAVIS, Albuquerque Journal

ELEPHANT BUTTE, NM (AP) – Neal Brown dismantled, relocated, and rebuilt one of its marinas in Elephant Butte Lake State Park last week.

The sinking of the reservoir level led to the rare, labor-intensive movement into deeper water.

On a muggy afternoon, Brown maneuvers a boat near the 300-foot-high dam at the southern end of the reservoir.

He rings a watercraft that is driving near a light buoy.

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“It’s really shallow, and they shouldn’t be there,” says Brown, whose Lago Rico company operates the reservoir’s marinas. “This boat could be damaged.”

The reservoir is currently 8-10% full, according to the US Bureau of Reclamation and the Texas Water Development Board.

Reclamation projections show that when the season ends in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, the lake could sink to just 1% capacity by the end of this month, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Brown said he was trying to avoid slipping into “doomsday mode” while watching the predictions. But he believes this year is an opportunity for authorities to reassess water management practices and find a way to prevent reservoirs from near historic lows.

“It’s going to drop about a foot a day or so after July 4th,” Brown said.

Rock formations and sand around the lake tell the story of the “feast and famine” of the Rio Grande.

Lines high above the water are reminiscent of the years when New Mexico had good snowmelt, monsoon seasons, and full reservoirs.

In recent years the lower water lines have been exposed.

RVs take advantage of the property when the water recedes and avoid muddy areas that have recently been underwater.

There is a narrow window for a good lake rest this summer, said Edna Trager, Mayor of City of Elephant Butte and co-owner of Zia Kayak Outfitters.

“My concern is that we will shrink and die down here,” said Trager. “That’s why we’re sounding the alarm.”

The Mayor joined Brown and a coalition of local lawmakers and business owners led by Republican MP Yvette Herrell in mailing a letter to Camille Touton, the incumbent complaints commissioner. The group called for regulatory reforms and infrastructure investments to help tackle the lake’s “existential crisis” this year.

“Even if we find out that water levels may not be as high as they forecast, that doesn’t mean the problem will go away,” Trager said. “You can’t start over every year.”

The Elephant Butte Reservoir is considered part of Texas under the Rio Grande Compact, which regulates water supplies between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

A team from New Mexico state and federal agencies is carrying the load of delivering river water from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to the southern reservoir.

Jennifer Faler, Area Manager for Reclamation in Albuquerque, pointed out the persistent drought, rather than water management, as the main driver of lake levels.

The US Drought Monitor shows that almost two thirds of New Mexico are affected by extreme to exceptional drought.

“Outside of the watering season, we’re talking November through March, when we don’t water, the amount of water that flows past the Otowi meter is roughly the same as the amount that enters Elephant Butte,” Faler said. “The canal clearly carries water effectively.”

The Cochiti Dam, built on the main pier of the Rio Grande in the 1970s, may also have made Elephant Butte levels less constant.

“If you look at the rivers off Cochiti, it was routinely 10,000 cubic feet per second, and every four years you saw a low of 1,000 cfs,” Faler said. “The river could sustain itself. When Congress asked the Corps (of engineers) to build Cochiti, they asked us to mechanically maintain the river. “

Reclamation recently realigned three miles of the San Acacia River south of Albuquerque, Faler said, which “is likely the reason we are not yet seeing significant dehydration below the Bosque del Apache”.

The federal agency is also removing vegetation to improve drainage and prevent sediment plugs.

An extensive approval process for these projects results from environmental laws that are intended to protect the habitat of endangered species.

Additional sediment removal and water catchment restoration projects could improve the efficiency of water supplies in and out of Elephant Butte, said Earl Conway, New Mexico Bass Nation conservation director who is helping restore or introduce fish habitats in several state reservoirs.

“A dam dies the day it is built as it fills with sediment,” Conway said. “Elephant Butte will probably be dead in 75 years. That sounds like a long time, but it’s only a few generations of farmers and then they will be in a world of pain for the water. “

The Elephant Butte Dam was built from 1912 to 1916.

For nearly a decade, Conway has created more habitat for fish, including plants, on the southern reservoir.

“Although the lake is extremely shallow, much of our fish habitat is at just the right depth,” he said. “Without that, the fish would only have sand and stones. We’ll probably have one of the better spawns this year. “

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said western waterways and reservoirs like Elephant Butte should play an important role in the infrastructure finance packages moving through Congress.

“We need a minimum pool not only for downstream use for farmers and reassurance that there will be a season next year, but also for the ecosystem, for fish and for the local economy,” said Dow.

Dow signed the letter with Herrell.

She also joined Senator Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Rep. Luis M. Terrazas, R-Santa Clara, in a letter asking the New Mexico Congressional Delegation for specific projects.

Legislators asked for assistance of $ 30 million for the complaint to clear sediment in the Socorro and San Marcial areas of the central Rio Grande and $ 5 million for the Bureau of Land Management to manage the watershed and improve drainage around the reservoir.

“The dramatic water levels, which can drop to 10% or lower in a single season, are not good for the structure of the dam that has exceeded its life,” Dow said.

The farmers of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, who grow chilli and pecans south of the lake, will receive a 10 cm supply of surface water from the reservoir this year. That’s just enough for one watering cycle, says Gary Esslinger, district treasurer and manager.

The district started its season on June 1st.

“If we’re lucky and the monsoon hits, we could extend our season beyond July 1st,” said Esslinger. “But at the moment we can’t have any more water until June 25th.”

In July 2020, state engineer and New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact Commissioner John D’Antonio secured permission from Texas and Colorado to release approximately 12 billion gallons of water from the El Vado Reservoir. The water had been stored in upstream reservoirs for delivery to Elephant Butte in the fall after the irrigation season ended in central New Mexico.

The fail-safe decision allowed the river to flow through Albuquerque and extended the irrigation season to October.

It has also amassed New Mexico’s water debt to downstream users.

Esslinger said he believed last summer’s decision was an “olive branch” for farmers in the Mitteltal.

“But in retrospect, it hurt us down here,” he said.

For Brown, summer on the lake becomes a waiting game to see how deep the reservoir sinks.

“I know there is a big argument that this is for irrigation, not recreation,” Brown said. “What I am saying is that there is no irrigation if there is no water here. A drought plan with the requirement of a minimum pool could benefit both here. “

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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