Bernalillo, New Mexico (AFP) – Triple-digit temperatures and a volatile monsoon season combined with decades of persistent drought to put one of North America’s longest rivers in its most dangerous state yet.
Islands of sand and pebbles and patches of cracked mud dominate where the Rio Grande once flowed. It’s a sight not unlike other hot, dry spots around the western United States where rivers and reservoirs are shrinking due to climate change and constant demand.
Local and federal water managers warned Thursday that more of the beleaguered Rio Grande will dry up in the coming days in the Albuquerque region, leaving the endangered silver minnows stuck in any remaining puddles.
Officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and one of the largest irrigation areas on the river said that the risk of the river drying up in the far north has been present in the past few summers due to the ongoing drought. But, this could be the year when residents in the most populous area of New Mexico see the effects of climate change on a larger scale.
It is not uncommon for parts of the Rio Grande to dry up in its southern regions, but not in Albuquerque.
Like a monument, the river flows through the city, surrounded by a forest of cottonwood and willow trees. It is one of the few strips of green that cut through the arid state, providing water for crops and communities.
“This is almost the only source of water in the central part of New Mexico and we’re not trying to provide it just for fish,” said Andy Dean, a federal biologist. “Our job as a fish and wildlife service is to prevent the extinction of this animal, but also this water for everyone in the valley. We try to save it for everyone and if the fish is that piece that helps us do that, that’s what we have to use.”
The Bureau of Reclamation will release the remaining few supplemental waters to the upstream reservoirs along the Rio Grande. Over the past 20 years, the agency has leased about 700,000 acres — or 228 billion gallons — of water to supplement flows through the central Rio Grande of endangered species.
Biologists aren’t sure this latest release will be enough to make a difference to the endangered minnow.
Crews have already rescued minnows stranded in the San Acacia and Island regions and will continue as the river dries up. So far, they’ve been lucky to catch about 50 fish a day, but Dean said those numbers are only a fraction of what has been saved in past years.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of little things out there right now. Our population monitoring also reflects that.
Dean said collecting minnows in Albuquerque would be new territory for the crew because they had never had to do such work in the far north.
With a series of dams and interstate water-sharing agreements governing the Rio Grande’s flows, local, state, and federal officials in previous years succeeded in coming up with decisions that would allow the additional water to be leased and released so that the flows could be increased at times of need.
This year is different. New Mexico has been unable to store any additional runoff in its upstream reservoirs because it owes Texas water as part of an interstate agreement. With outstanding debts and no water at the bank, New Mexico has nothing but hope for rain to recharge the system during the monsoon season.
It should serve as a wake-up call to the public and water management agencies, said Jason Kasuga, chief engineer for the Central Rio Grande, which serves farmers throughout the central Rio Grande Valley.
“There is a lot of infrastructure on this river that was built for a purpose and that was during a period of time when water was abundant,” he said. “I hope this is the silver lining that comes from this, that people start to reimagine how we can use that existing infrastructure.”
Congressional legislation may be required in some cases. In other cases, it may require agreements with federal water and wildlife agencies that would allow for more flexibility.
“The longer this drought lasts, I think people will realize that we have to find the balance,” Kasuga said.
District and state irrigation officials have pushed more farmers to participate in voluntary rest programs. Farmers would leave their fields uncultivated for a season in order to save water and increase what flowed across the border into Texas as a way to get out of debt.
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