Friday, May 16, 2014

Splitting the Río Grande

The offices of the San Luis Valley Irrigation District are housed in an aging Quonset hut on a sleepy side street in Center, Colo. To an outsider, the hand-painted sign and worn carpet imply an organization that is old-fashioned and outdated. But in reality, the district is part of one of the most modern and sophisticated water management operations in the country. District superintendent Travis Smith has made a career out of water management in the San Luis Valley. He’s well acquainted with the myriad challenges the valley’s irrigators face — both environmental and economic — and he’s wary of outsiders who are quick to criticize the enormous amount of water consumed by the farmers he serves. In recent years, those criticisms have grown louder. Prolonged regional drought has strained relations between water users north and south of the border. Long sections of the Río Grande in New Mexico have dried up entirely, and the state’s pecan and chile industries have suffered badly for lack of water. Rafting outfitters in Taos County have joined those focusing their ire north. Some guides complain scant Río Grande flows are killing their businesses. This is particularly true because rafters and kayakers can’t run one of the area’s main recreation attractions — the Taos Box — if irrigators leave almost nothing of the river in the late spring and summer. In preparation for his interview with The Taos News, Smith has three things on his desk: the daily Río Grande flow report detailing exactly how water from the river will be allocated that day; a pocket-sized copy of the Río Grande Compact, which shows how much water Colorado owes New Mexico; and a newspaper article about a Santa Fe environmental group threatening to sue Colorado over its irrigation practices. Like just about everyone in the San Luis Valley, Smith’s first point is that Colorado is strictly abiding by the terms of the compact. The compact is an interstate agreement between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas that was signed in 1938. Colorado’s obligation to New Mexico varies from year to year, depending on how much water comes into the valley, but in general Colorado must deliver about a quarter of the river’s annual flow to the state Smith’s claim
Colorado is fulfilling its end of the bargain is accurate. In fact, deliveries to the state line have been slightly greater than the compact’s requirements in recent years. But there’s a catch — that amount is calculated on an annual basis, meaning Colorado can take nearly all of the river in the spring and summer (coinciding, of course, with rafting season and irrigation season for New Mexico farmers), let it flow unimpeded in the winter, and still meet the terms of the compact. On Monday (May 12), runoff from Río Grande’s headwaters came barreling from the San Juan Mountains and into the San Luis Valley. A streamflow gauge just west of Del Norte, Colo., (used to measure the full volume for purposes of meeting the compact) clocked the turbid river at around 2,100 cubic-feet per second (cfs). Moving east from that point during irrigation season, however, the river loses water like a leaky bucket...more

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