Floating Albuquerque’s Rio Grande: notes on “naturalness”

Paddle board with backpack and paddle handle, river in the background with trees on either side and a bridge in the distance. The river is muddy brown.

A proper celebration

The Rio Grande is up through Albuquerque right now, swollen with spring snowmelt. But not for long. We may already have hit the runoff peak at a bit above 3,000 cubic feet per second in late April, and a friend who’s been cheerfully nagging me to float it with them talked me into locking down Tuesday, May 7, for a boat trip, before the flows got so low that “float” turns into “walk and drag your boat over the sand bars”.

My friend and I both work on, write about, talk about, and think about the Rio Grande for a living, which is weird – that such careers exist. But despite my deep engagement with this river, I have spent little time in and on the river itself. I walk and bike the trails alongside the river all the time, a relationship magnified by spending the last four years writing a book about the relationship between Albuquerque and its river. I feel a deep intimacy with the Rio Grande.

But I have only actually floated it a handful of times.


Brown river, blue sky, trees flanking the river, a paddler paddling a boat in the distance

In the midst of a city, naturalness.


Floating the Rio Grande through the heart of Albuquerque is striking. We were in the midst of a metropolitan area of nearly a million people. But once we drifted under the morning commute jam on the highway known as “Paseo del Norte” on the north end of town, the traffic noise dimmed and the forest lining the river enveloped us.

As the river shrinks from drought, climate change, and human water use, sandbars have become thickly forested islands. Cormorants, drawn from the south by a combination of a warming climate and the stocked fishing ponds just off the river near downtown (I love the second reason.), have colonized this stretch of the river, sentinels on river snags hunting breakfast.

Ducks and geese and flitty little birds I cannot name sullenly took flight as we neared. Cottonwoods and a host of other trees, both longtime residents and recent immigrants, hung over the banks. A lone turkey vulture, my first of the year, waited to complete the cycle underway all around us.

But the river is playing a trick on us.

If the cormorants weren’t enough of what in poker would be called the river’s “tell,” the swallows were the giveaway, swarming each bridge, the concrete ledges stand-ins for the cliffs from which some of their number draw the names humans have bestowed upon them. My friend told me turkey vultures have the best sense of smell of any animal on earth, that oil companies sometimes add vulture attractants to pipelines that the birds might help them find leaks. I was skeptical, as is my way, but delighted, as also is my way.

I have always loved the conversational rhythm of a bike ride with a friend – often deep, but fragmented by decisions and revisions, channeled by the ride’s geographical flow, providing a narrative structure to be filled in. Floating a river, though I have done it far less, offers the same feel. I can see why Mark Twain settled into it as a literary device.

Boating, with fewer stop signs and traffic lights and left and right turns, offers more space for conversation than cycling, and yesterday’s was particularly rich because it placed my friend and I unavoidably in the midst of a landscape of ideas we have been exploring.

Just past the Montaño bridge, we paddled over toward river right (did I get the lingo?) and drifted down the bank past an old oxbow cut off from the main channel by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s river realignment project in the 1950s. A sandbar that crept out into the main channel in 2020 from the oxbow’s margin has been colonized with willows that last year withstood what could, thanks to the dictates of upstream flood management, be the largest flow they’ll ever see. It is a sandbar making the transition to forest.

I have biked and walked to the sand bar from the landward side often over the last four years, trying to make sense of the story the place is telling us. (There’s a whole chapter about it in the new book.) Yesterday was my first time seeing it from the water.

Linking history to hydrology makes this stretch a storytelling lode. Off to the east, old acequias – urban streams – flow along twisting paths they’ve occupied for more than three centuries. The Rio Grande’s main channel here is less than 75 years old. I mine this lode to explore, in conversation and writing, what we mean by “natural.”

In a fascinating paper that crossed my electronic desk this week, Dutch landscape planner Paul Opdam noodles around the idea of “naturalness.” He’s not talking here about any inherent qualities in the thing, but rather evidence from the research literature about characteristics that people perceive. What makes us think of a landscape as “natural?” Opdam’s review suggests a number of characteristics:

  • Curvy shapes
  • Vegetation succession, where older growth is perceived as more “natural”
  • Phenomena like flowing streams
  • Diverse wildlife
  • Water features
  • Plant diversity
  • Landscape heterogeneity

Opdam is not pursuing some understanding of what is “truly natural.” He is talking about a built environment. What matters to him is what people perceive as natural, based on the premise that such a perception of naturalness conveys benefits.

Before large-scale human intervention, the Rio Grande wandered a wide flood plain through what is now Albuquerque. Beginning less than a century ago, we pinned it between levees down the narrow strip my friend and I were floating. With river locked in place, and upstream water use and flood control dams changing the river’s hydrology, our beloved cottonwood forest opportunistically took hold.

It used to annoy me that people thought of the results as “natural.” The cottonwoods here are weeds in a sidewalk crack, former John would grumble. But in my old age (the float trip was part of my extended 65th birthday celebration), I have mellowed on this point. Whatever its origin story, we love the bosque. It may be an unintended side effect of river engineering on a massive scale, but it’s got big trees and diverse wildlife, and oh, the water features! Opdam’s paper suggests the question of whether things are in some a priori sense “natural” is beside the point.

My friend and I batted this back and forth. Voltaire’s Candide paid us a visit. Here’s how Bob and I put it in the new book:

Candide’s final wisdom is most often translated from the original French thus: “We must cultivate our garden.” But modern translations from Voltaire’s “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” suggests a more expansive interpretation, the garden not as the plot of land behind the house but as a more expansive landscape: “We must work our land.” Translating “jardin” as “fields” or “land” suggests a broader space, encompassing not just one’s personal environment but also the larger community.

An urban river

The underside of a bridge, with orange columns covered with graffit and a river in the foreground.

The Rio Grande beneath the interstate, Albuquerque, May 2024.

The Interstate 40 bridge over the Rio Grande in the heart of Albuquerque is another of my favorite river places. Art on bridge pilings is ever present up and down this stretch of the river, and this has some of my favorites. This spot likely doesn’t meet most of Opdam’s “naturalness” criteria, but I love it too.

From the interstate down to our takeout at the Route 66 Bridge, it felt like we were back in a city again. But the deeper point in all of this blathering is that the river as it is today, the bosque, and the city are all of a piece. We would not have any one without the others.

Tending this garden is the task ahead.

Postscript: I notice that the bridge graffiti picture is a little jittery, out of focus, which means my friend will have to take me out on the river again. Plus there’s some more graffiti river left I’d like a picture of.

New Colorado River Guidelines are Only the Beginning

Much attention is focused right now on rewriting Colorado River operating rules, to replace the soon-to-expire 2007 reservoir operating guidelines. But there is a growing frustration that the struggle to solve that relatively narrow problem “mass balance” problem (how much water, and where?) leaves out a range of incredibly important issues:

If a reminder of this reality were needed, it was provided in the majority of comments submitted as part of the EIS scoping process, summarized by Reclamation as urging a “more holistic view of the system to include the integrity and health of the river and its tributaries,” a perspective which, among other things, includes a consideration of “environmental justice,” “preserving natural and cultural values,” and “acknowledging and incorporating the rights and authorities of all Basin sovereigns.”

That’s from a new policy brief from my friends and colleagues at the Colorado River Research Group, a collaborative of researchers across the basin whose mission is to provide “an independent, scientific voice for the future of the Colorado River.” The brief grew out of conversations among the group’s members about both the strengths, as well as the shortcomings, of the current process.

We are mindful that much of what CRRG has been advocating for is directly on the table in the various proposals now being considered for post-2026 river management:

New and improved reservoir management strategies are clearly needed and, at a minimum, will need to accomplish the following items discussed in earlier Colorado River Research Group (CRRG) publications:

  • Address those rules that have institutionalized the structural deficit, largely at the expense of
    protecting (and recovering) reservoir storage;
  • Better integrate the latest science about climate change and ongoing basin aridification, as well as real-time seasonal weather data, into the planning and operational framework;
  • Improve incentives, opportunities, and mechanisms for all water users to participate in
    conservation programs and other efforts promoting system flexibility and resilience; and,
  • Interface with new agreements with Mexico focused on protecting reservoir levels, habitat
    restoration, and shortage-sharing.

But there are so many other important issues left untouched by the P26 process (sorry, yes, some of us have started shortening it to “P26”) that the list we came up with among CRRG members is too long to blockquote here in a blog post – click through to read the white paper, it’s not too long.

What we advocate for in the paper is that the other issues not be lost in our rush to solve the mass balance problem.

Game theory on the Colorado River: The prisoner’s dilemma

All of the controversy relative to the utilization of the Colorado is hampering the fullest development of the stream. As Governor Pittman said, it is impossible to plan ahead with any assurance when there is such conflict. Solution of all these differences is admittedly not easy. The economic and social future of the various Colorado river states will be influenced to a very great extent by the decisions. Naturally, each state seeks the most advantageous settlement for itself. The danger is that too much emphasis on the selfish advantage of each state will do each more harm … than each could possibly benefit through pressing its selfish viewpoint to the end.

Some time these conflicts will have to be settled—and the settlement, if it is to be effective and enduring, will have to be on a reasonably fair basis to all. Continuing delay in reaching settlement is more harmful than compromise.

Salt Lake Telegram, Feb. 2, 1948

Rapid snowmelt on New Mexico’s Rio Grande

Snowmelt in the Rio Grande headwaters as of April 28, 2024, courtesy NRCS

A recent rapid warmup has brought high flows to the Rio Grande through New Mexico. But with a modest snowpack sitting in the mountains to the north, that means we should expect the early rise to be followed by an early drop.

Members of the Inkstain Rio Grande Rapid Response Team (IRGRRT) were busy over the weekend monitoring the river. (“Monitoring the river” actually just means “going for walks, bike rides, and boating the river” like we do nearly every weekend, but “monitoring the river” and “Rio Grande Rapid Response Team” sound cooler and more official than a bunch of river nerds goofing.)

Water spilling out of a river channel quietly, with trees on the left and a roadway bridge pilings on the right

Rio Grande, up out of the main channel, at the Rio Bravo Bridge in Albuquerque South Valley.

IRGRRT team members saw enough water through the Albuquerque reach to float over many of the sandbars, and flows in some of the overbank shallows beyond the main river channel. Those overbank flows are a mixed bag – important for ecological system function, less helpful for meeting Rio Grande Compact deliveries to our downstream neighbors with whom we share this river.

Last year, with a much larger snowpack, we saw sustained flows this high (and higher) through the end of June, when the Army Corps of Engineers slammed on the brakes. The tail end of the 2023 runoff sat behind the upstream dams at Abiquiu and Cochiti until Nov. 1, when the Corps began releasing it to meet our delivery obligations to our downstream neighbors. That won’t happen in 2024.

This year’s flow shot up with the big warmup two weeks ago melting off the snow in a hurry. That’s the rapid drop you see in the snowpack graph above. It may already have peaked, with flows hitting 3,600 cubic feet per second at Otowi (the gage above New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley). In response, the Corps has dropped releases at Cochiti. At Albuquerque, the peak hit ~3,200 cfs, and has now settled under 3,000 cfs.

Busy graph showing flows in the Rio Grande at Albuquerque rising rapidly over the last two weeks, but beginning to drop again.

Flows at Albuquerque, April 29, 2024.

Thanks to all the IRGRRT volunteers, and Inkstain supporters.

A note on some trees in the Rio Grande bosque

Dirt path flanked by twisting tree trunks topped with green leaves.

Bosque as garden

Lissa and I ended a bosque walk yesterday lingering on the bench from which the photo above was taken, talking about aesthetic vision. Her art has long focused on textures and patterns, and we stopped again and again so she could take pictures of leaves – not individual leaves, but leaves in community, golden on the ground from last year, fresh baby green as the cottonwoods have been leafing out over the last ten days.

On its own, my mind does entirely different things with this scene – sussing out the age of the cottonwoods, the flood history, the management processes of tree thinning and trails, the moral baggage of the different words I might use to describe the elms, the deep stories I might write.

And then Lissa drew my attention to the leaves.

The trail north from Rio Bravo Boulevard followed the river’s edge, with water backing into the shallows, wetting the ankles of willows that have made their homes on a shelf cut along the river’s edge to create habitat for a fish. Lissa stopped, again and again, to shoot pictures of the water and the trunks of the willows.

Four decades of life with this artist has been a joy, but that word – “joy” – doesn’t do justice to the depth of the experience. We walk. Lissa sees something, stops. It’s a thing I hadn’t seen, or hadn’t seen in the particular way she did. I see her seeing it, look, and see it in a new way. It is the aesthetic foundation of my being in the world.

There is a continuum here, which Lissa and I talked about as we sat on the bench. My father was an artist. Before he died, I’d been to this same bit of forest, looked at these same trees, with him. This way of being in the world, the aesthetic foundation gifted by life adjacent to an artist, has been there from the beginning. For all but a handful of my 65 years, I have lived with a working artist.

It’s a defining characteristic of who I am.


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.


What Happens if there is no Agreement on Post-2026 Colorado River Operations?

By Eric Kuhn

Given how far apart the competing proposals from the Colorado River Upper and Lower Division States are, a legitimate question is – “what happens if we get to the summer of 2026 and there is still no agreement on the post-2026 operational guidelines?” Well, believe it or not, that is a question upon which the seven basin states and the Secretary of the Interior already agree.  The Upper Division States made the following comment in their proposal:

As of the date of this submittal, Reclamation has not disclosed the No Action Alternative for this EIS. The No Action Alternative must acknowledge that, upon expiration of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the operating criteria for Lake Powell and Lake Mead will revert to the Long-Range Operating Criteria (LROC) used to model baseline conditions in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Interim Surplus Guidelines dated December 2000.

The language quoted by the Upper Division States letter comes from the Record of Decision (RoD) for 2007 Interim Guidelines (Section 8. C.). This termination language was included with the consent of the states. So, the obvious questions are – if the operating criteria are to revert to the LROC, what are the LROC, and what specifically do they mean for the operation of Lakes Mead and Powell?

What is the LROC?

The long-range coordinated operating criteria or “LROC” are a requirement of the 1968 Colorado River Basin Project Act, the federal legislation that, among many other things, authorized the Central Arizona Project (CAP). Prior to the creation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines for the coordinated operation of Glen Canyon and Hoover dams, the LROC created the framework for determining how much water to release from Lake Powell to Lake Mead each year.

The 60s were a turbulent decade for the Colorado River Basin.  In 1962 Flaming Gorge and Navajo Reservoirs began filling, then in 1963, Lake Powell began filling. To manage the filling of over 30 million acre-feet of vacant space (25 maf in Lake Powell), in 1962 the Secretary issued filling criteria. And, as luck would have it, the 1960s were relatively dry. The filling criteria were controversial in both basins. A significant concern was power generation. The Upper Basin wanted to fill the reservoirs as fast as possible so the Upper Basin fund would begin accruing revenues that would be used to subsidize irrigation projects under the 1956 Colorado Storage Project Act. The Lower Basin was concerned with the impact of power generation at Hoover Dam – the revenues from which were being used to repay the federal treasury for Hoover Dam and other projects on the lower river.

The Upper Division States became concerned that the Lower Division States would continually interfere with the storage of water in the Upper Basin Reservoirs using Article III(e) of the Colorado River Compact, which states:

The States of the Upper Division shall not withhold water, and the States of the Lower Division shall not require the delivery of water, which cannot reasonably be applied to domestic and agricultural uses.”

The Upper Division States (via the UCRC) decided they needed to use the federal legislation then pending before Congress to authorize the CAP to clarify the rules under which water would be stored and released from Lake Powell and the other CRSP storage reservoirs. A critical question that needed to be answered was how much holdover storage the Upper Division States would need to meet their compact obligations under Articles III(c) and III(d) of the compact. This was a difficult question to answer given that the two basins had very different interpretations of these provisions, especially the obligation off the Upper Division States to Mexico under the 1944 Treaty. Today the two basins still have very different interpretations of these provisions.

The specific language of Section 6 of the 1968 Act was negotiated by the states with input from Reclamation. With Congressman Aspinall (the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee Chair from Western Colorado) insisting that operating language be included in any legislation, the UCRC had the better hand. Colorado’s Felix Sparks (its CWCB Director and UCRC Commissioner) said “we wrote every word of Section 6.”

The requirement for the LROC is included in Section 602(a):

“SEC. 602 (a) In order to comply with and carry out the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, and the Mexican Water Treaty, the Secretary shall propose criteria for the coordinated long-range operation of the reservoir constructed and operated under the authority of the Colorado River Storage Project Act, the Boulder Canyon Project Act, and the Boulder Canyon Project Adjustment Act. To effect in part the purposes expressed in this paragraph, the criteria shall make provision for the storage of water in storage units of the Colorado River storage project and releases of water from Lake Powell in the following listed order of priority:

(1) releases to supply one-half the deficiency described in article III (c) of the Colorado River Compact, if any such deficiency exists and is chargeable to the States of the Upper Division, but in any event such releases, if any, shall not be required in any year, that the Secretary makes the determination and issues the proclamation specified in section 202 of this Act;

(2) releases to comply with article III(d) of the Colorado River Compact, less such quantities of water delivered into the Colorado River below Lee Ferry to the credit of the States of the Upper Division from other sources; and

(3) storage of water not required for the releases specified in clauses (1) and (2) of this subsection to the extent that the Secretary, after consultation with the Upper Colorado River Commission and representatives of the three Lower Division States and taking into consideration all relevant factors (including, but not limited to, historic stream-flows, the most critical period of record, and probabilities of water supply), shall find this to be reasonably necessary to assure deliveries under clauses (1) and (2) without impairment of annual consumptive uses in the upper basin pursuant to the Colorado River Compact: Provided, That water not so required to be stored shall be released from Lake Powell: (i) to the extent it can be reasonably applied in the States of the Lower Division to the uses specified in Article III(e) of the Colorado River Compact, but no such releases shall be made when the active storage in Lake Powell is less than the active storage in Lake Mead, (ii) to maintain, as nearly as practicable, active storage in Lake Mead equal to the active storage in Lake Mead, but no such releases shall be made when the active storage in Lake Powell is less than the active storage in Lake Mead, (ii) to maintain, as nearly as practicable, active storage in Lake Mead equal to the active storage in Lake Powell, and (iii) to avoid anticipated spills from Lake Powell.”

Section 602(b) required that the Secretary submit draft criteria to the states by January 1, 1970, and, after receipt of comments, adopt criteria by July 1, 1970.

The language of the first two priorities for releases from Glen Canyon Dam appears straight forward, but there are still implementation questions. The first priority is to release water to meet the obligation of the Upper Division States to Mexico, if any. Today, the Upper Division States believe they have no obligation to Mexico, but the Lower Division States believe it’s at least 750,000 af per year. Thus, lacking either an agreement among the states or an interpretation of Article III(c) by the Supreme Court, this priority is unquantified. The second priority is to meet the Upper Division State’s 75 maf every ten years non-depletion obligation under III(d). It’s an average of 7.5 maf per year, but the language does not require a specific flow amount in any one year. To add uncertainty, the Upper Division States believe that if climate change, not Upper Basin depletions, is a cause of ten-year flows falling below 75 maf, there is no violation of Article III(d).

The third priority is more complicated (perhaps convoluted). It’s designed to address the question of how much holdover storage the Upper Basin can keep in the Lake Powell and the other CRSP reservoirs. Although the language may be confusing, the intent is simpler. The Upper Basin may keep as much storage as the Secretary determines necessary to allow the States of the Upper Division to meet their compact obligations during the most critical drought of record. If there is more than that amount in storage, then they must share the extra water with the Lower Basin, but only to the extent necessary to equalize active storage in Lakes Mead and Powell. Thus, was borne the term “equalization.”

After the 1968 Act passed, the Department of the Interior immediately began an effort to prepare a draft LROC. The effort involved a federal-state task force. It also involved the first comprehensive use of a computer to simulate numerous different reservoir operational scenarios (I wonder how many of us still remember the days of computer punch-card decks?). Interior officials quickly realized that the effort was going to be complicated and contentious. For Interior’s version of the events, see Chapter VII of the 1978 version of the Hoover Dam Documents. The contentious issues were the annual release amount from Glen Danyon Dam and how to calculate the amount of allowable holdover storage (now commonly referred to as “602(a) storage”). Colorado’s Felix Sparks put it this way: “Everything we do at Glen Canyon Dam is ultimately about the Colorado River Compact.”

After numerous meetings and conferences, on June 9, 1970, Secretary Walter Hickel formally approved the first LROC. Much of the language parroted the 1968 Act provisions for the CRSP reservoirs and for Lake Mead, the language of the 1964 decree implementing the 1963 decision in Arizona v. California. For the Upper Division States, however, the Secretary made three decisions that they strongly opposed. First, the LROC included a provision for an annual “minimum objective release” from Glen Canyon Dam of 8.23 maf. The problem was that this number was derived as 7.5 maf plus 750 kaf (the LB’s interpretation of the UB’s Mexican Treaty obligation) less 20 kaf (the mean flow of the Paria River). The Secretary accepted recommendations from the UCRC for language clarifying that the minimum objective release was an “objective” not a “requirement” and that the Secretary was not interpreting the Compact. The second problem was that the Secretary rejected their recommendation that a probability rule curve be used to set the 602(a) level.  Instead, the Secretary determined that the 602 (a) level would be set on an annual basis. Finally, with the adoption of the LROC, the UCRC recommended that the lake Powell filling criteria be terminated. The problem with the filling criteria from the Upper Division States perspective was that it required revenues from power generation at the CRSP units be used to keep the Lower Basin whole for the impact of filling Lake Powell on power generation at Hoover Dam. The Secretary rejected this recommendation and the filling criteria stayed in effect through 1980.

The rejection of its important recommendations left the UCRC members bitter. New Mexico State Engineer and UCRC Commissioner, Steve Reynolds, put in his plain-spoken language – “they crammed it down our throats” (expletive deleted).

So what happens if we continue to use the LROC?

So, the big question is – if there is no agreement on post-2026 operating guidelines between the basins and the Secretary determines that the annual operation of Lakes Mead and Powell for Water Year 2027 (and perhaps beyond) will be guided by the LROC, what does this mean for the reservoirs?  For Lake Powell, the answer may be not much. It means an annual release of 8.23 maf (or perhaps 8.1 maf -taking into account the river inflows immediately below the dam). Depending on the runoff in 2025 and 2026, there’s a reasonable chance that this would be the amount released under a continuation of the 2007 Interim Guidelines. The differences are that there would be no balancing of the storage levels in Lakes Mead and Powell as is allowed by the three balancing tiers of the 2007 Interim Guidelines and if the next two years are dry, there could be some debate over whether the Secretary has the authority to reduce releases below 8.23 maf – something that might be needed given the need to protect elevations below 3,500 feet at Lake Powell because of concerns about use of its outlet works.. I believe the answer to this question is clearly yes. In a June 2, 2005, letter, Secretary Norton wrote “the Department retains the authority pursuant to applicable law and the Operating Criteria to adjust releases from Glen Canyon Dam to amounts less than 8.23 million acre-feet per year. Specifically, the Department transmitted the following statement to the Governors of each of the Colorado River Basin States on June 9, 1970: “…(T)he operating Criteria imposes no firm or fixed obligation the 8.23 million acre-feet be released each year from lake Powell. That quantity is stated as an “objective” ….”

As for releases greater than 8.23 maf, under the authority referenced in the June 2, 2005, letter the Secretary might also have the authority to increase releases.  The LROC, however, anticipated that the occasional releases greater than 8.23 maf would be made as equalization releases under the Section 602(a)(iii) third priority. The LROC provides that the Secretary determines the equalization or 602(a) storage level annually, but it appears that in the near to mid-term future, there is very little risk that the storage level in Lake Powell will be anywhere near a level that would require a large equalization release (as happened in 2011). Based on the table in the 2007 Interim Guidelines, the end of water year elevation of Lake Powell would have to exceed 3666’ (100’+ higher, or 10+ maf more than the current level). Further, I would argue that the 3666’ level is no longer current. It assumed that 1954-65 was the critical drought. The recent 2000-2022 drought is every bit as dry and twice as long as the 1954-65 drought, therefore, a better estimate of today’s 602(a) level is “all of the available CRSP storage plus a lot more.” The Upper Division State’s proposal, in fact, does not even include an equalization provision.  Furthermore, in separate studies in 1969 and 2004, Reclamation concluded that in the future, the 602(a) level would exceed the available CRSP storage capacity. This is one of the reasons that in 1970, the Secretary rejected the rule curve. Reclamation modelling concluded that with future Upper Basin development, the result of applying the UCRC’s proposed rule curve (98.4%) meant that all available CRSP storage was needed to protect the Upper Basin. For more information on “602(a),” see Reclamation’s 2004 Environmental Assessment on this subject. The Upper Basin depletions have not achieved the level of development anticipated in either 1969 or 2004, but natural flows have been far less. From Lake Powell’s perspective there is no difference between upstream depletions and climate change caused reductions in natural flow.

For Lake Mead, operating under the LROC may be more complicated. The “70R” criteria is a flood control strategy for Lake Mead. Given the current reservoir levels, the chances of encroaching on the flood control space in Lake Mead is very small. The most pressing problem would be that after the termination of the 2007 Interim Guidelines, there would be no “current” guidance on the specifics of when and how much for the shortage levels that would still need to be imposed on Lower Basin mainstem users in 2027 and beyond.  Under the 1964 Decree, however, the Secretary has the clear authority, if not a mandate, to set shortages. I think it’s likely that the Secretary and three Lower Division States would agree on Lake Mead deliveries. A more difficult question may be the level of the annual deliveries to Mexico. If there is no internal U.S. agreement on the post-2026 guidelines, will Mexico be interested in extending Minute 323?

Operating under the LROC might be manageable

The bottom line is that if there is no agreement among the Basin States for consensus post-2026 operating guidelines, it may not be the ideal outcome the states want but given the broad authority and flexibility the Secretary has under the 1970 LROC, the situation would be manageable. In fact, operating Lake Mead and Lake Powell under the flexibility provided by the 1922 Compact, Section 602 of the 1968 Act, and the 1970 LROC might provide opportunities for a more flexible management approach that can be designed to address a broader range of issues, including balancing recreation resources, and addressing environmental conditions in the Grand Canyon.




The Loss of El Vado Dam

The Bureau of Reclamation’s announcement at Monday’s meeting of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District that it is halting work on El Vado Dam repairs raises hugely consequential questions about water management in New Mexico’s Middle Rio Grande Valley.

The short explanation for the halt is that the current approach to repairing the 1930s-era dam wasn’t working. (The meeting audio is here, though at “press time” for this blog post this week’s is not yet up.) I’ll leave it to others to suss out the technical and bureaucratic details of the repair project, and the endless finger-pointing that’s sure to ensue. My interest here is to begin to sketch out the implications here in the Middle Valley of an indefinite period – a decade or more? – without El Vado.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District built El Vado (with substantial federal subsidy) in the 1930s to provide irrigation supplies by storing high spring runoff for use in summer and fall. But while its purpose was irrigation, it completely changed the Middle Valley hydrograph in ways that all the other water uses have adapted to, both human and ecosystem.

Without El Vado (or some interim replacement – see below), we should expect the Rio Grande to routinely go functionally dry in late summer unless propped up by monsoon rains, which are sporadic and unpredictable.

I see impacts in three areas, only one of which is related to El Vado’s initial purpose.

1: Irrigation

This is the obvious one. Until El Vado is repaired or some sort of replacement schemed out, irrigators should expect a high risk of low or no supply in late summer and fall. Alfalfa will remain a reliable if modest crop (it can hunker down and wait out the dry), but the few commercial operators who need a more reliable supply for their crops – think pecans and chile – will have to depend on groundwater, with all the problems that entails.

2: Municipal Supplies

Albuquerque’s use of its imported San Juan-Chama water in summer indirectly depends on El Vado. Without MRGCD water, released from El Vado, as “carriage water”, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility has to leave its imported San Juan-Chama water parked in Abiquiu Reservoir, switching to groundwater. This is what we have done over the last few years, and our much-vaunted aquifer recovery has, as a result, stalled.

This poses a huge challenge for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

3: Environmental Flows

The idea of an agricultural irrigation dam providing the water for environmental flows seems super weird. But that’s basically the way it’s worked for years here in the Middle Valley. Releases from El Vado, sent downstream to irrigators, provide environmental benefits along the way. For the last couple of years, without El Vado water to supplement flows in late summer, the Rio Grande has operated on a knife’s edge between flowing and dry through Albuquerque.

This poses a huge challenge for efforts to nurse the Rio Grande silvery minnow back from extinction.

Storage alternatives

First and foremost, there is a fast-moving and scrambling discussion about storage alternatives.

Abiquiu Reservoir, a flood control facility on the Rio Chama built, owned, and managed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, is an obvious replacement. The part in italics yields knowing nods, or perhaps grimaces, from folks who work in Middle Valley water management, because the Corps is well known for an exceedingly cautious interpretation of its statutory mandates. “Filling in as a water storage facility to replace El Vado” is only sorta barely at the edge of that mandate. Getting the Corps on board to help with this fix will be key.

Heron Reservoir, on a Rio Chama tributary, stores San Juan-Chama water imported through tunnels beneath the continental divide. It physically can’t replace El Vado because it’s in the wrong place. But discussions have already touched on the idea of doing it on paper via accounting swaps – hold back San Juan-Chama water, let SJC customers use native Rio Grande water via an accounting swap, then deliver Heron water as if it had been El Vado water.

Elephant Butte? Again, it’s in the wrong place, but accounting swaps here are also on the table.

Institutional Framework

The most important subtext is the institutional framework behind all of this. The loss of El Vado is not solely an MRGCD/Bureau of Reclamation problem. It implicates all the Middle Valley’s water stakeholders – especially Albuquerque’s Water Utility Authority, but also the Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service (because of ESA issues), the state water agencies, the communities on the valley floor that have avoided responsibility for any of this by depending on the state’s obscenely permissive domestic well statute.

Five Major Proposals for Post-2026 management of the Colorado River

With the submission of two additional proposals last week, we now have five major proposals for post-2026 Colorado River management.

The folks at the Water and Tribes Intitiative have helpfully organized them in a single place. (Click on the
“Proposed Alternatives for Post-2026 Operating Guidelines” bubble.)

Tribal Principles

A set of guiding principles proposed by 17 of the basin’s sovereign indigenous communities. (click here)

Upper Basin Proposal

What the label says, you already know about this one. (click here)

Lower Basin Proposal

What the label says, you already know about this one. (press release, alternative, presentation)

Environmental NGOs

The “Big Seven” Colorado River Basin environmental groups (click here)

Lake Powell/Grand Canyon/Lake Mead Ecosystem Proposal

A proposal from Jack Schmidt, Eric Kuhn, and John Fleck suggesting ways to manage the storage and distribution of water to provide more flexibility for environmental and other non-water supply benefits. (click here)