New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact debt is likely to grow; El Vado Dam won’t be fixed for a long while yet; we might see a lot more Middle Rio Grande Valley farmers paid next year to fallow

A river with fall colored-trees in the background and a bridge.

Rio Grande at Albuquerque, November 2023

Finishing the new book has thrown me into a time warp.

We’re about to hand in a manuscript for a book that traces a century and a half of the evolution of Albuquerque’s relationship with the Rio Grande, leading up to now. But the now of the act of writing (November 2023) is different from the now that will exist when the book first emerges in 2025, and the now in which readers experience it in the years that follow.

This conceptual muddle is crucial for the book. We are trying to describe the process of becoming that made Albuquerque what it is. That process of becoming, we argue at some length, cannot be understood without understanding how we as a community came together to act collectively to manage our relationship with the river that flows through our midst.

But – and this is the crucial thing, because it explains why we are writing this book – the process of becoming is never done. We hope to help inform Albuquerque’s discussion of what happens next.

There’s less water. What do we do? We will never stop negotiating our complex relationship as a community with the Rio Grande.

I spent a delightful afternoon yesterday that stretched well into the evening, listening to a series of enormously consequential discussions of these issues at the monthly meeting of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. One of the district’s senior folks recently pointed out how often, during the most difficult of discussions, they look at me sitting in the audience and see me grinning. Those most difficult discussions are the most fascinating to me.

I found myself leaning forward in my chair frequently, shifting my position to see the faces of the board members and staff as they wrestled with this stuff.

I grinned a lot.

Three things from yesterday’s meeting stood out. All three are things that would have merited a significant newspaper story back in my Albuquerque Journal days. This blog post is not that, but if you’re paying attention to Middle Valley water you should keep an eye out for these three incredibly important developing issues.

1) New Mexico’s Rio Grande Compact Debt is likely to rise

The Rio Grande Compact, an agreement among Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to share the waters of the compact’s eponymous river, has a tricky sliding formula determining how much water each state is allowed to consume (through human use as well as riparian evapotranspiration), and how much it must pass to its downstream neighbor. It’s got some wiggle room – states can run a debt, as long as it doesn’t get too large and they catch up in subsequent years. But the changing hydrology of the Middle Valley has made it increasingly difficult for New Mexico to meet its downstream delivery obligations.

New Mexico is currently 93,000 acre feet in debt because of under deliveries in recent years. The hole’s likely to get a lot deeper this year, thanks to a big spring runoff (which increases New Mexico’s required deliveries) and a lousy monsoon (good summer rains can help make up a deficit – this year they did not). If our debt rises above 200,000 acre feet, bad things happen.

2) El Vado Dam reconstruction is taking a lot longer than it was supposed to take

El Vado Dam was built in the 1930s to store water for Middle Rio Grande Valley irrigators, allowing storage of spring runoff to stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall. But it’s kinda broken. Contractors working for the US Bureau of Reclamation began work a couple of years ago to fix it, with the expectation that it would take a couple of years. It is now widely understood that it may not be done and in operation again until 2027. Or later.

This would be devastating to the portion of irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande Valley that farm for a living. As our book will deeply argue, it’s critical to understand that this represents a minority of irrigated land in the valley. Much of the farming here is non-commercial, “custom and culture” farming, a supplemental income (or even, for the affluent, a delightful money loser) for people whose livelihood doesn’t depend on it. But for either class of irrigators, a lack of late summer and fall water makes things incredibly hard.

El Vado’s problems have not been publicly announced yet, but all the cool kids are talking about them. Expect something more substantive at December’s MRGCD board meeting.

3) Fallowing

We could see a substantial expansion of acreage fallowed, with a big chunk of federal money paid to irrigators to forego their water in the next few years. MRGCD has been building the institutional widget to do this for several years, with federal money flowing to irrigators to lay off watering their land for either a partial or full season as part of a federally funded program to generate water to meet Endangered Species Act requirements for our beloved Rio Grande silvery minnow. In 2023, that generated (in accounting terms, be skeptical of the four-digit precision) 3,615 acre feet of water.

For 2024, the MRGCD, working with federal money funneled through the state, will push for a dramatic increase. Price per acre will double, to $400 an acre for a split season (irrigate in spring and fall, but not in summer when demand is highest) and $700 an acre for a full season. It’s a voluntary program, so all depends on how much irrigators want to join in, but I can imagine a lot of people looking at the El Vado shitshow and taking the money.

There was a very confusing board discussion that involved an actual invocation of Roberts Rules of Order by the district’s legal counsel and a vote that I still don’t understand with people who support the program voting “no” and people who oppose it (I think) voting “yes”. If I was still a reporter I would have had to sort all of this out while an editor hovered barking about deadlines, but thankfully it’s just a blog that no one actually reads, written by an old guy in pajamas still working on his morning coffee and breakfast.

The bottom line is the possibility of the compensated fallowing of as much as 8,000 acres next year, ~15-ish percent of all irrigated land. I think. As I said it was a pretty confusing thing, and I’m not done with breakfast.



  1. Because grinning is the awareness, the knowledge, the joy of a conversation that is taking place because it must. There are a lot of difficult decisions still to be made and I, for one, have learned a lot from your posts and very much look forward to the book. Maybe a few more people will learn from your notes and messages. There is less water.

  2. As another old guy with morning coffee: I read most of your posts and appreciate their journalistic/cyclistic point of view—as we’ll as their keeping me acquainted with a part of the planet I love, though left long long ago, realizing that water would be a serious problem before I was old. Thanks for your work.

  3. John: El Vado will never be fixed. It has no chimney drain, no blanket drain and no toe drain. I preached the demise of this dam when I was on the Board 2005 – 2009. There are no major dam engineers employed by the USBR. It needs to be removed and replaced with a properly constructed dam.

  4. John:

    History has shown us the vastitudes of farming. Drought or Flooding. A paycheck to farmers, who can’t farm anyway, is welfare run wild. Our forefathers planned for feast or famine. Farmers throughout history have planned for feast of famine.

  5. John: The vagaries of hydrology are the Laws of Mother Nature and the River. It is the Laws of Man which must be adaptable. In 1948 the Commissioners shifted the burden of evaporation onto the backs of the MRGCD to make more water for the farmers in the LRG. May be its time to change the delivery point back and leave the LRG to suffer that loss instead.

  6. John, thanks for your post. The three “incredibly important developing issues” you describe are truly INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT but not sufficiently so to be reported except in blog posts like yours.

    The whole Middle Rio Grande will suffer if New Mexico’s water delivery debt exceeds the legal limit, which could happen as of the completion of water accounting next spring. Collectively, we in the Middle Valley are asleep at the wheel. MRGCD self-limiting of its diversions to not consume water that New Mexico is obligated to deliver downstream is the only short term answer, unless the State Engineer Office can make good on its assurances that it will prevent a shortfall that is certain to trigger a new Texas lawsuit in the US Supreme Court.

  7. Nice summation from the MRGCD meeting John. Interesting read.

    One thought from it is that, given the likely increase in Accrued Compact Debit for next year, no conservation storage will occur next year for MRGCD in Abiquiu Reservior even if the Water Control Manual change to reflect WRDA 2020 is completed. That’s because new conservation storage can’t happen unless New Mexico retains its Accrued Debit in upstream storage.

    Did that possible situation come up?

  8. “stretch the growing season threw summer and into fall.”

    should be

    “stretch the growing season through summer and into fall.”

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