Finding an alternative place to park Middle Rio Grande water options with El Vado Dam out of service

Two key takeaways from Monday’s (May 13, 2024) Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District board meeting:

  • El Vado Dam, crucial for managing irrigation, municipal, and environmental water through New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande valley, will be out of service indefinitely – for many, many years.
  • The vague structure of alternative storage options, using other existing dams, is beginning to take shape.

El Vado, built in the 1930s on the Rio Chama, has been out of service since 2022 for rehabilitation work by the US Bureau of Reclamation’s dam safety program. Challenges in fixing it have sent Reclamation’s engineering team back to the drawing boards. Work was supposed to be done by 2025. It’s now clear that the dam will be out of service for the foreseeable future.

Without the ability to store some of each year’s spring runoff for use in late summer and fall, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is at the mercy of summer rains, without which it will dwindle to near nothing every year unless or until El Vado is fixed or we sort out alternative storage arrangements.

More on this part – the status of trying to fix El Vado – in a separate post to come later (once I write it I’ll add a link here), because the more important bits at Monday’s meeting involved the first cagey public discussions about what we will do in the meantime.

(Inkstain is reader supported.)

Exploring Water Storage Alternatives for the Middle Rio Grande

The always quotable Socorro farmer and MRGCD board member Glen Duggins offered a simple plea: “Just give us somewhere to park our water.”

Much of Monday’s discussion – sometimes explicit, sometimes in coded language – focused on this question.

If you look at the monthly reservoir storage graphic from Reclamation printed as a handout for Monday’s meeting (printed as a handout for every meeting), you’ll see there are two other reservoirs flanking El Vado upstream and downstream, and they have enough empty space in them to make up for most, if not all, of El Vado’s now unusable ~180,000 acre feet of capacity.

  • Abiquiu Reservoir currently has ~100,000 acre feet of available storage space
  • Heron Reservoir has ~300,000 acre feet of available storage space

But the details of using them for this new purpose, storing Middle Valley irrigation and environmental water, which is different than the purposes for which they were built, are staggeringly tricky.


Abiquiu Reservoir, built in the 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Rio Chama as part of a massive federally funded project to protect the Middle Rio Grande Valley from flooding, is huge.

In 1981, Congress authorized a change in use to allow imported San Juan-Chama water to be stored in Abiquiu – up to 200,000 acre feet. (It requires an act of Congress.) Subsequent to that, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority got a storage permit from the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer (Storage requires a state permit, I hope you can see what I’m doing with the parentheticals.) to store its SJC water in Abiquiu. Then in 2020 another act of Congress did something I’m a bit confused about that allowed native water storage, not just San Juan-Chama water, and maybe more than the 200,000 acre feet, I think (Note: Another act of Congress required.) And then the Army Corps of Engineers had to rewrite its water operations manual, which nearly four years later is just now being completed. (It requires not only an act of Congress to change the purpose of use at Abiquiu, but also a lengthy Corps process to rewrite its rules.)

My Utton Center colleagues are far smarter than I about these institutional nuances – Utton has long worked on the legal plumbing – but I wasn’t about to wake them up at 6 in the morning, so you’re stuck with me.

(John catches breath and microwaves the last of his morning coffee, which had grown cold – thanks to Inkstain supporters who chipped in to help pay for said coffee, I really need it this morning!)

So yes, there is space in Abiquiu for us to park our water. But the rules tangle is of Gordian proportions.


Upstream, Heron Reservoir sits on a tributary to the Chama, built in the 1970s to store water imported beneath the continental divide from three Colorado River headwaters streams. It seems ill-suited for storing Rio Grande water.

It currently holds ~100,000 acre feet of imported San Juan-Chama project water, with room for another ~300,000 acre feet. (Note bene: I’m rounding all the numbers off here to one or a few significant digits.) The trick here is to hold the San Juan-Chama water in Heron and then do a series of carryover accounting and maybe native water swaps that I can’t begin to understand, let alone explain, in order to kinda sorta use Heron as well.

The negotiations

One of the reasons the discussions about all of this at yesterday’s board meeting were kinda vague is that the three parties crucial to cutting the Gordian tangle – MRGCD, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority – are in negotiations about what sort of parenthetical agreements might be needed to make it all work.

They need space to sort out thorny incentive problems – the interests of the municipal water utility to protect and manage its own municipal supply will be key. In this regard alone, it my be in the water utility’s best interests to help. Low late summer river flows, which are inevitable without storage, force the utility to switch to groundwater pumping to get water to my tap. As a result, the aquifer recovery, of which we are rightly proud in Albuquerque, has stalled.

Also key will be the broader community interests of flowing ditches and a flowing river, which while not directly related to ABCWUA’s water supply nevertheless may be things the water utility’s board members – city councilors and county commissioners – care about.

The typically blunt Duggins was unusually cryptic at Monday’s meeting, but I infer this is what he was talking about when he said: “We’re neighbors. I don’t understand why it would take a year or two to get papers signed.”


  1. John:

    This hegemonic warfare is intolerable. One River one river authority. Do away with the USBR the ACOE and the ABCWUA, OSE, MRGCD, WA, EBID, etc and Congress. Roll them all into the RGWA. We have the URGWOM models to guide any decision.

  2. John (and readers): Among the stakeholders in the puzzle that has become of El Vado Reservoir storage is New Mexico’s river-running community, who have come to rely upon the Rio Chama National Wild and Scenic River as it’s only reliable overnight, whitewater river experience.

    The failure to complete El Vado’s rehabilitation process, adds an uncomfortable element of doubt to boaters future access to this outstandingly remarkable recreational/ecological resource. Now that Middle Valley irrigators desired outcome is to store irrigation water in Abiquiu, recreational flows in the river become more uncertain. Abiquiu, you see, is downstream of Wild and Scenic River, suggesting future harms to the outfitting industry and all those who have heretofore enjoyed late Summer and Fall flows.

    Expect this class of New Mexicans to weigh in on what a future without El Vado should look like.

  3. Nice write up John. As inflows lessen and grow more erratic, reservoir storage will remain (as will conservation) key to meeting a number of needs.

  4. Instead of fixing a rather shaky infrastructure they could spread and sink more acre feet into the acquifers along the river and then could pump it back out when needed. The lack of evaporative losses would help but also having more groundwater will also help with any nearby river and stream flows. Not that this is perfect as there are some losses but overall I think in the end it costs less than building or fixing dams that may not have reasonable answers to their problems.

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