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Low Flows Predicted for Rio Grande in 2018

February 12, 2018
Jen Pelz, (303) 884-2702, jpelz@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—The Natural Resource Conservation Service released its February forecast late last week predicting dire conditions for Rio Grande flows in 2018. The agency anticipates flows at the Otowi Bridge in northern New Mexico at 21 percent of average. The February forecast of the existing snow pack is even more grim than the forecast from last month.

“It is going to be an extremely difficult year for Rio Grande flows,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians and Rio Grande Waterkeeper. “I certainly hope a plan is in place by federal and state water managers to ensure that river ecosystem does not bear the brunt of these dry conditions without sacrifices by water users as well.”

This is how the January and February 2018 forecasts stack up against those from the decade prior:

NRCS Monthly Forecast Rio Grande

The 2018 forecasts are particularly troubling considering how much lower they are than the extremely dry years of 2011-2014. In 2013, when flows were about 30% of average, river flows reached critically low levels and miles of dry river in some reaches of the Rio Grande.

One region of particular concern is the 75 miles of river from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to just above Velarde, New Mexico. This section of the Rio Grande is one of America’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers designated 50 years ago in 1968. The flows into this reach depend on the water Colorado delivers to New Mexico under the Rio Grande Compact—an agreement between the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas that divides the river’s flows. In low flow years, the Rio Grande Compact allocates water heavily in favor of Colorado water users leaving only a trickle at the Colorado-New Mexico state line.

The following graph shows a comparison of Rio Grande flows at the Del Norte Gauge (in blue) located in Del Norte, Colorado and the Lobatos Gauge (in red) located east of Antonito, Colorado 6 miles north of the state line.

The Rio Grande at the state-line experienced 137 days during 2013 with flows below 100 cubic feet per second and more than half of those days (65 days) were below 50 cubic feet per second. The lowest flow recorded that year was 6 cubic feet per second on July 23rd. The river ecosystem cannot thrive under these extremely low flows.

While 2013 flows may seem like the worst-case scenario, climate scientists and federal agencies predict climate change induced flow declines will persist for the Rio Grande. Flows in the Rio Grande are predicted to decline by 25 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in the Middle Rio Grande in central New Mexico, and 50 percent in southern New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. The disparity in how these impacts are distributed is a result of strict implementation of the Rio Grande Compact.

“We need to rethink the Rio Grande Compact in the 21st century,” added Pelz. “If left unchanged in how the compact is implemented, upstream communities will thrive at the expense of their downstream neighbors. There has to be a better way.”

WildEarth Guardians and Waterkeeper Alliance joined forces in 2017 to establish Rio Grande Waterkeeper. Our Rio Grande: America’s Great River campaign works to leverage our collective expertise to safeguard and reconnect flows in the Rio Grande—the lifeblood the desert southwest.