The Rio Grande was running fast and wide around a bend near the Buckman Direct Diversion near Diablo Canyon one recent April day — a healthy sign that the snowpacked mountains of southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico are already providing a welcome, healthy spring runoff.
“It’s not the 100-year flood,” said a city of Santa Fe worker watching the Rio Grande flow that day. “But it’ll do.”
Water experts and conservationists agree. Following a particularly dry 2017-18 winter season, the spring 2019 runoff into the region’s rivers, streams and arroyos is looking downright wonderful, offering at least a brief respite from continuing drought conditions.
“A steady flow and more groundwater is our insurance policy for times when we don’t have a good runoff,” said Andy Otto, executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, a nonprofit that provides stewardship for the 45-mile-long Santa Fe River.
Royce Fontenot, a senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, said runoff is estimated to be 148 percent of normal for the April-through-June season this year.
“The runoff is looking great,” he said. “We’re seeing an increase in stream flow over the entire region. Someone who has moved here in the past 10 to 15 years may not be used to seeing this kind of flow.”
That surge of water can make a difference for a region beset by such severe drought conditions that just six months ago, water flow levels were 50 percent of normal, leading to a die-off of trout in the Pecos River.
It means more water to fill local reservoirs and wells, including the two big ones that contribute to the city of Santa Fe’s water supply. The 216 million-gallon Nichols Reservoir is full, said Alan Hook, a water analyst for the city. The larger McClure Reservoir — with a capacity of 1.06 billion gallons — is 61 percent full, with about 648 million gallons of water in it, he said.
The runoff also will help recharge city wells, Hook said.
Farmers and ranchers around the state stand to benefit as well. Elephant Butte Irrigation District officials said last week that farmers can expect to get their share of irrigation water as soon as early June, with an allotment of 6 inches per acre. That allocation could increase, depending on how much snowmelt ends up in the Rio Grande.
From a recreational standpoint, more water in the state’s rivers, streams and reservoirs could lead to more fishing, boating and rafting throughout the spring and summer.
“It’s looking good. It’s gonna be epic,” said Kathy Miller, who with her husband, Steve, runs New Wave Rafting in Embudo along the Rio Grande.
Still, she said, the actual flows into New Mexico are uncertain. Under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, Colorado is required to deliver a certain amount downriver every year, but that volume is largely dependent on how much water southern Colorado farmers use to irrigate their fields.
“In nearly 40 years of running the river, I’ve discovered it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen,” Miller said. “It used to run big all the time, but things got dryer. But I think we’re going to have a good season.”
While much of the flows into the Rio Grande come from headwaters in the San Juan Mountains, Steve Harris, executive director of Taos-based Rio Grande Restoration, said about a quarter of the water comes from runoff from Northern New Mexico mountains.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service issued a report April 1 that said with year-to-date precipitation totals “coming in with impressive triple digit numbers as high as 139 percent, the spring runoffs are looking favorable” in New Mexico.
The report also said major reservoirs in the state are “storing well below average amounts of water. … They have been depleted and await runoff this spring for a recharge.”
“Last year, we had desperately low water storage in nearly every reservoir in New Mexico,” Harris said.
The strong spring runoff “will help,” she said. “It won’t reset the clock, but it will definitely help ease the dry conditions in those reservoirs.”
For the first time since January 2018, New Mexico has no areas considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Still, the Natural Resources Conservation Service report said, “long-term drought remains over a large portion of the state.”
Fontenet said New Mexicans need to brace for long-term challenges.
“We’ll need continued precipitation through the spring months and into the monsoon season to help get the area out of drought,” he said.
In the short run, New Mexico may benefit from a “slightly wetter than average April and May,” said Andrew Church, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service of Albuquerque, on Sunday. But beyond that, he said it is too early to predict summer precipitation figures.