How municipal water conservation is keeping the Rio Grande through Albuquerque from going dry

Rio Grande at Albuquerque’s Central Avenue Bridge, Sept. 6, 2020

One of the traditional “tragedy narratives” of western water is the idea that thirsty cities are draining our rivers. But in two of the last three years, precisely the opposite has happened here in Albuquerque.

We’ve been limping along on a very bad year on the Rio Grande, with some of the lowest flows through Albuquerque that we’ve seen in a while. And the limping will continue. But with irrigation water in storage just about gone, an agreement is taking shape that will use an unused chunk of Albuquerque’s imported Colorado River water to keep the Rio Grande from drying through Albuquerque in coming months.

This is possible because Albuquerque’s water conservation success has left it with more water rights than it currently needs, including water we import through the San Juan-Chama project, a transbasin diversion that brings Colorado River water through tunnels beneath the Continental Divide. Some of that, now sitting in storage in reservoirs up on the Chama, will be released in coming weeks to maintain flows in the river here in town.

A similar deal in the very dry summer of 2018 also used some of Albuquerque’s unused Colorado River apportionment to keep the Rio Grande wet.

To be clear, this isn’t a charitable contribution on Albuquerque’s part. As I understand the deal, three government agencies with a shared interest in keeping the river wet – the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – are paying the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority for the water.

Also to be clear – the environment and our community’s cultural values around a flowing river in our midst will not be the only beneficiary. After what water managers call “system losses” – the trees and the shallow aquifer using a share of the water as it wanders downstream – some portion of the water will arrive at an MRGCD dam south of Albuquerque, where it can be diverted for use by farmers south of town.

Also to be clear – absent upstream dams, which held back a bit of the high spring flows for use over the summer, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque would have this summer long since been dry. This is such an altered system that in a year like this, it’s only human water management that is keeping anything flowing here at all.

Also to be clear – the only reason we’ve got this extra water at all is because we divert large quantities away from the Colorado River, which has problems of its own.

But it’s intriguing to see the traditional narrative turned on its head – water available for the environment because a city has more than it needs.



  1. Yes, we see city municipal systems “decouple” through reduced demand per capita. But cities are not independent “islands”. Just wondering how much watered surrounding ag land is needed for the groceries?
    Also, have the water rights quantities ever been scaled back to the actual river volume?

  2. always glad to hear of people giving something back even if in the end it does get used again, at least for the parts of the river between where the flows are coming from and where they are diverted and used again there are billions of creatures and people who can use and enjoy the river and the flow of the water that would recharge some of the groundwater along the way too.

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