The loss of El Vado: some followup

A couple of followup notes related to last week’s post about the news on El Vado Dam on the Rio Chama, crucial to water management on New Mexico’s Rio Grande, thanks to my many alert and thoughtful Inkstain readers….

Rio Grande Compact Debt

In the comments, Norm Gaume made a point that’s worth pulling out and highlighting:

The Middle Rio Grande’s accrued compact debt would prevent storing water this year if El Vado Dam were intact until without first storing the full amount of the compact debt and not using any of it. The compact debt is 122,000 acre-feet and worsening annually. In the last six years, the Middle Rio Grande consumed 154,000 acre-feet of the Lower Rio Grande’s water. The six-year average is 26,000 acre-feet of new debt per year. Why? Middle Rio Grande river flows are way down. Middle Rio Grande water uses are not.

Norm is making an incredibly important point here. El Vado is important in the long run. In the short run, thanks to the Rio Grande Compact’s rules, we wouldn’t be able to use it anyway this year to store spring runoff to stretch out irrigation through the summer. Unless and until we get our Compact debt under control, it doesn’t matter whether, when, or how we fix El Vado.

Rafting the Chama

In an email exchange, my UNM School of Law colleague Reed Benson pointed out the importance of El Vado in managing flows on the Chama for recreational boating and environmental benefits:

Having El Vado offline makes it more difficult to manage flows in the Chama Canyon reach.  That could hurt summer weekend boating flows, which support river recreation on the very popular Wild & Scenic reach.  It could also affect the effort to better manage flows in that reach for environmental benefits.



  1. Thanks for the update. New Mexico is confronted with a “high class” valuation problem of finding the least cost method to meet its debt obligation in conjunction with improving their own storage opportunities.

  2. Yes, boating. Both agriculture (the #1 other water user) and outdoor recreation contribute about 2.5% each to New Mexico’s GDP. It would be just as reasonable to scoff at growing pecans in the desert as to scoff at boating. Except – growing pecans is a consumptive use, boating’s not.

  3. Clarification: agriculture is the #1 water user by a long shot, not the the #1 “other” water user.

  4. sounds like rafting flows will be protected as BOR claims they’ll manage flows through Heron, and leave El Vado wide open to keep flows around ~500cfs. We know this didn’t work last year as expected, but hopefully they’ve got a better idea this year of how to keep it running consistently.

    Re: Mr. Gaume’s comment: is this in reference to the Compact’s article VII? If so, isn’t there more than 400kaf of usable project water at Elephant Butte until mid-July or so? That should, hypothetically, allow us to increase storage in El Vado until reaching that point.

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