It’s been 30 years since residents in parts of New Mexico saw their stretch of the Rio Grande River go dry. Last year, the water conditions were tough. But U.S. water officials say 2021 could be the driest period since the 1950s.
The 1,885-mile Rio Grande is one of North America’s longest rivers. It is a major water source for millions of people and thousands of square miles of farmland in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.
So far this year, waterflow into the Rio Grande has been meager. Snow from nearby mountains usually feeds the river. Below-average snowpack in the mountains along the Colorado-New Mexico border created the water shortage. Scanty spring rains did little to fill the water void.
Extremely low soil moisture levels and warm temperatures complicate matters further. The dry, thirsty ground absorbs any melting snow—or it evaporates before it reaches the river.
What’s more, reservoirs are at a fraction of their normal volume and continue to shrink. The state’s largest—Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico—could soon drop to just three percent of capacity.
New Mexico cannot replenish the reservoirs because of a 1938 water-sharing agreement with Texas. The deal involved sharing water from the Rio Grande among Colorado, New Mexico, and the Lone Star State.
The deal requires New Mexico to allow a certain amount of water to flow into Texas. It prevents New Mexico from storing water upstream if it hasn’t met the water quota. This year, the drought-stricken state has no extra water to fall back on.
Federal water managers released their annual operating plan for the Rio Grande this spring. “Just low dismal numbers all around,” says Ed Kandl, a hydrologist (water scientist) with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Kandl talked with representatives from cities, tribal governments, irrigation districts, state agencies, and a rafting company about the water shortage. All are working to solve problems, meet agreements, and keep businesses afloat.
The Bureau of Reclamation warns that a superb monsoon season seems the only possible solution. Barring intervention from the One who sends rain (Matthew 5:45), residents in Albuquerque could see sandbars take over their patch of the river. Plans are already being made for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish from drying portions of the river.
Meanwhile, New Mexico could see a shorter growing season this year—with less water for the state’s key crops like pecans and chile peppers. Scientist Megan Boatright says ranchers may need to sell off cattle to afford to feed and water them.
“Every rancher I talk to is ‘hanging in there,’” she says, “as we all hope for more rain and snow and for a successful growing season.”