Water in the Desert: High Flows on the Rio Grande

If you’re in Albuquerque, it’s  a great weekend to go out and see your river.

The Rio Grande is flowing at nearly 6,000 cubic feet per second through the city right now (Saturday evening, 5/22), courtesy of a spike flow to help Rio Grande silvery minnow spawning. The high flows allow water to get out of the main channel and into constructed low areas along the Albuquerque reach of the river, as well as some minor overbanking into the bosque (0ur riverside woods) itself. As near as I can tell, it’s the highest flow we’ve had since 2005.

For those not familiar with the 21st century Rio Grande, our river once spread over a vast and shallow flood plain, miles wide. Today, it’s confined to a narrow central channel, and the ecosystem that used to thrive as high spring flows spread out across the valley floor has been choked off. What’s happening is a very modest simulation, at a small scale, of what used to be an annual affair.

I’ve been out of town all week and was afraid I would miss the peak flows, but when I got back from our trip at midday today, I checked the USGS web site

high flows on the Rio Grande

high flows on the Rio Grande

and saw it was peaking, so Nora and I went down this afternoon for a look. The picture was taken in one of the new constructed side channels, on the east side of the river just south of the Central Avenue (old Route 66) bridge. The channels are built to take water only when the river’s high, creating a shallow, slow water area for the fish to spawn.

There are some interesting issues with the engineering approach to ecosystem restoration, which I hope to find some time to explore next week for the newspaper. There are constraints on how much water you can allow down the river – primarily the railroad bridge at San Acacia, but also some levee issues and development in the flood plain. Some folks argue that fixing those problems would allow even higher flows, which would allow a more natural overbanking and reconnection between the ecosystem and the river.

(Sorry for the picture quality, taken with my cell phone camera.)