In 1996, Steve Harris bought a house in Pilar near the banks of the Rio Grande.
Harris, who started Far Flung Adventures rafting company in the late ’70s and got involved with river conservation efforts about a decade after that, knows the Rio Grande well. He can tell at a glance if the river is rising by reading the hues of its currents.
In his decades living on New Mexico’s primary watercourse, Harris has seen some memorable years. There was the dry year he moved , when the protruding rocks and pale, exposed banks looked like “the bones of the river.” Then there was 2005, when he packed a bag, grabbed his dog, and prepared to leave because the Rio Grande was threatening to overflow its banks.
“We will remember 2017,” said Harris, who from his porch on Friday could see willow trees bending in the fast-moving, brown current. “It’s been 10 years since we’ve seen this kind of water.”
The Rio Grande and other rivers in Northern New Mexico are surging. Experts say the heavy winter snowpack in New Mexico and Colorado mountains, coupled with recent cold snaps and a boost from spring precipitation, mean New Mexico will have more runoff than in past years, and it will last further into the summer season. And that is good news for irrigators, recreational users, municipal water systems and wildlife that depend on the rivers.
“We’ve had, particularly on the Rio Grande, a very good snowpack year,” said Royce Fontenot, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “The positive impacts are going to be that agriculture and water users on the Rio Grande and San Juan are going to have more water than they’ve had in recent years.”
The Rio Grande currently has twice as much water flowing through it than is typical for this time of year. On Friday, the river gauge at the village of Embudo recorded 4,020 cubic feet per second, which is more than double the 85-year average for the same date.
The Upper Rio Grande snowpack, which feeds the headwaters in Southern Colorado, was at 122 percent of its historical median Friday, according to a map published by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Snowpack in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which shed water into the river south of the state line, measured at 150 percent.
The Rio Chama snowpack, which supplies important reservoirs and the river for which it is named, had a snowpack Friday that was 266 percent of the historical median.
Mary Carlson, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, says the snowmelt is strong enough that, for the first time in a few years, Heron Reservoir will be able to fully allocate the water promised to contractors, and El Vado Reservoir is again allowed to store water, which isn’t allowed when reservoirs downstream are at a critical level. Water forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service estimate that El Vado inflow from March through July will be 171 percent of normal.
“We have been in extreme drought for many years here in New Mexico. All of our reservoirs are now really low. This above average snowpack is a really big deal at this point,” Carlson said. “It’s looking like it’s overall going to be a really good year for water.”
At the Santa Cruz Reservoir, water is cascading down the dam’s overflow spillways, said Kenny Salazar, water manager for the Santa Cruz Irrigation District He expects to see chile crops and kitchen gardens flourish along the eight miles of irrigation ditches in the district. He just hopes warm nighttime temperatures don’t make the Santa Cruz River jump its banks.
Garrett VeneKlasen, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, has a similarly optimistic outlook for New Mexico wildlife. More water and more plants means more turkey, elk, bighorns and songbirds, and next year, maybe even bears with two cubs.
“This is a wonderful thing,” VeneKlasen said. Even so, the ecosystem will need more years like this one to recover from a long drought, he thinks. “This is sort of a blip in time. We need to see prolonged amounts of precipitation.”
Santa Fe stands to benefit, too. Snows in the canyon east of the city feed the McClure and Nichols reservoirs, a significant source of water supply for the community water, which, like Albuquerque, also diverts water from the Rio Grande. On Friday, flows in the Santa Fe River before it reaches McClure were at 22 cubic feet per second, which is above the 17-year average of 17 cfs.
For all of water’s life-giving qualities, strong rivers are dangerous. And during heavy flow years like this one, the Rio Grande’s Mexican name, el Río Bravo, or the “furious” river, is particularly apt.
On Thursday, an experienced rafter and kayaker died on the river after he fell off a raft and was pulled under by the current, The Taos News reported. The Taos County sheriff’s office told the newspaper that Daniel Willard, 67, was on the river with friends. Willard was unconscious and not breathing when rescuers pulled him out of the water, and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Flows above 3,000 cfs require rafting guides to go through extra training, and outfitters have scrambled over the past weeks to get their guides familiar with the conditions before schools let out and the tourism season starts in earnest.
Fontenot from the National Weather Service doesn’t expect to see flooding on any parts of the Rio Grande, but he does think people who live close to tributaries should keep an eye on the water levels. There has been some recent flooding near Ojo Caliente because of snowmelt. And, of course, he said people should be cautious when recreating in the higher-than-normal flows.
“I would emphasize that this is a change from what we’ve had in recent years,” Fontenot said. “Folks need to exercise caution out and about on the river. It can be deceitful in how fast it’s flowing.”
“Otherwise, enjoy the water,” he said. “It’s New Mexico. We’re not used to it.”
Contact Sami Edge at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.