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States united in drought concerns

Posted: Friday, Mar 22nd, 2013

Participants in the annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting yesterday in Alamosa included from left Federal Chairman Hal Simpson, Colorado Commissioner/State Engineer Dick Wolfe, Colorado Division of Water Resources Division 3 Engineer/Compact Engineer Advisor for Colorado Craig Cotten and Texas Commissioner Pat Gordon. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

Courier editor

ALAMOSA — Pending litigation aside, representatives from the three Rio Grande Compact states united yesterday in their joint concern over continued drought along the Rio Grande corridor.

Alamosa hosted the annual Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting, which rotates among the states of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.

Although the states are currently involved in litigation over compact administration, pending lawsuits were hardly mentioned during the meeting, and state engineers said they hoped the states could resolve their differences.

In January, Texas filed suit against New Mexico over Rio Grande Compact disputes, with Colorado caught in the middle since it is part of the compact. The suit alleged New Mexico was not delivering to Texas the water owed that state under the compact.

“I am just hoping the three states and the commission continue to endeavor to work in a cooperative way,” said Dick Wolfe, compact commissioner for Colorado and the state water engineer.

He said he hoped the states could resolve the disputes currently before them.

Scott Verhines, Wolfe’s counterpart in New Mexico, said, “My mantra has been let’s try to solve and not fight … It behooves all of us to look for an opportunity to solve rather than fight.”

Pat Gordon, Texas’ compact commissioner and state engineer, said although he could not elaborate on all of the litigation issues, he agreed with Wolfe’s desire “that hopefully we can resolve all these issues.”

He said, “Water would solve a lot of issues.”

That seemed to be the consensus of all three states, which are entering yet another substandard water year.

“This is our fifth year in a row, consecutive year in a row, of below average conditions,” Commissioner Wolfe said. “We are seeing some pretty sustained below average conditions which certainly makes it difficult not only for users in Colorado but our downstream states as well.”

He said in the last 10-12 years, there have only been two or three years above the long-term average.

Wolfe reminded the water commissioners that 2012 experienced below average flows on the Rio Grande and Conejos River systems, with the Rio Grande producing 65 percent of average and the Conejos system 56 percent. He said 2013 will continue in a similar fashion but may be slightly better than last year. The March 1 forecast predicted 70 percent of average flows on the Rio Grande and 69 percent on the Conejos system, he reported.

The Conejos will begin diversions on March 25, mostly on the San Antonio River, and the Rio Grande diversion date has not yet been determined, Wolfe added.

“2012 was a very dry year when it came to water and the drought that we find ourselves in. 2013 is not looking very great,” said New Mexico Commissioner Verhines.

Texas Commissioner Gordon echoed other commissioners’ concerns that 2013 will be yet another dry year.

“Last year was below average, and it looks like this year will be below average as well,” he said. “The 2013 run off looks poor at this point.”

Referring to the year-end storage of 161,100 acre feet at New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, the major storage reservoir for compact water, Gordon said, “I don’t believe I have ever seen a year start off that low.”

The amount of water in the reservoir is a fraction of the reservoir’s capacity.

Verhines agreed.

“It’s a rough start. It’s a rough place to begin 2013.”

He added, “Downstream folks are looking upstream and saying ‘somebody’s got to be doing something wrong or there would be more water here.’ We aren’t doing things wrong. There’s just no water there.”

In sharing the report from the engineer advisors for the three states, Colorado Engineer Advisor and Division 3 Engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources Craig Cotten told the compact commission the inflow to Elephant Butte Reservoir last year was only a third of the 97-year average. He added that based on the February 1 snowmelt runoff forecast, the inflow to Elephant Butte from March-July this year is only expected to be about 40 percent of the 30-year average.

As long as Elephant Butte remains at such low levels, upstream reservoirs built after the compact was initiated, such as Platoro Reservoir in the San Luis Valley, will not be permitted to store water, according to compact restrictions.

Cotten reported that those restrictions are expected to remain in place the entire year.

Verhines shared New Mexico’s drought monitoring information that places the entire state in moderate to severe drought. He said the outlook at least through the end of May is not promising, either. He said he hoped when New Mexico hosts the Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting a year from now, things will look better.

He said the New Mexico state legislative session that just ended included more than 100 bills related to water.

“I think most of those were born out of fear or frustration … like we were trying to legislate some water into the system this year.”

Endangered species, and their effects on water sources, was another primary topic at yesterday’s Rio Grande Compact Commission meeting and will be addressed in a future article.

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