For a short while, the Santa Fe River will look like … well, a big river.
Water scheduled to be released from a regional reservoir will boost the Santa Fe River’s flow a hundredfold to an unusually high level for a short time this month, a city water official said.
“Get the kayaks out,” said Jesse Roach, the city’s Water Division director. “This will be fairly extraordinary.”
The release is set for Thursday and will last five days, he said.
Texas has asked New Mexico to release all the water it can spare into the Rio Grande, so it will flow south to the much-depleted Elephant Butte Reservoir, a main water supply hub for southwestern Texas.
Texas’ request comes via the multistate water-sharing agreement known as the Rio Grande Compact. New Mexico owes Texas a large quantity of water in the aftermath of a drought-stricken growing season.
Officials plan to release 948 acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.
About 748 acre-feet will be deposited from El Vado Reservoir into the Chama River, which connects to the Rio Grande.
Roughly 200 acre-feet will be released from Nichols Reservoir into the Santa Fe River, partly as an experiment to see whether the water can pass through an engineered canal at Cochiti Dam and flow into the Rio Grande, Roach said.
Cochiti Dam severed the direct connection between the Rio Grande and Santa Fe River when it was built in the early 1970s, Roach said. Officials want to learn whether the Santa Fe River might still act as a conduit for delivering water to Texas, he said.
The infusion of water will amplify the Santa Fe River’s flow to 20 cubic feet per second, about 100 times greater than the current rate, Roach said.
The last time the river streamed at such a high rate was briefly in spring 2019, Roach said.
Under the 72-year-old compact, New Mexico must funnel water to Elephant Butte based on the quantity it collected in its reservoirs the previous year.
If the state has a wet year, it’s expected to send more water to Texas the following year, just as a dry year results in the state owing less to Texas in the next cycle, said David Gensler, a hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
New Mexico was put in a bind by having a wet 2019 followed by an extreme drought in 2020 that made it unable to supply Texas with the water it owed, Gensler said.
New Mexico began 2020 owing Texas about 60,000 acre-feet, Gensler said. The debt grew substantially when Texas agreed to release 36,000 acre-feet of its water stored at El Vado Reservoir to assist with the thirsty Rio Grande Valley’s irrigation needs.
The additional release by Texas helped keep the Rio Grande’s flow high enough for Santa Fe to narrowly avoid a temporary shutdown of the Buckman Direct Diversion.
By the end of last year’s growing season, the entire state of New Mexico was in varying degrees of drought. Most of Santa Fe County was in “exceptional drought,” the most severe level, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Nearly all of the Middle Rio Grande Valley’s irrigation water was consumed last year, Gensler said. There’s only about 3,000 acre-feet available to send downstream, he said, including Santa Fe’s contribution.
“That’s all we’ve got to give them right now,” Gensler said.