July 22, 2024

Mark Garcia can see that there is no shortage of water in the Rio Grande this year. The river flows past his farm in central New Mexico, about 50 miles south of Albuquerque. The rush of spring water is a welcome change after years of drought, but he knows the good times won’t last.

As the summer continues, the river will decrease, leaving Garcia with a strict ration. He will only be allowed irrigation water for his 300 hectares once every 30 days, which is not nearly enough to sustain his crops of oats and alfalfa.

For decades, Garcia and other farmers on the Rio Grande have relied on water released from a dam called El Vado, which collects billions of gallons of river water to store and eventually release to help farmers in times when the river runs dry . More significantly to most New Mexico residents, the dam system also supplies the city of Albuquerque with running water.

But El Vado has been out of business for the past three summers, its structure bulging and disfigured after decades in operation — and the government has no plan to fix it.

“We need some kind of storage,” Garcia said. “If we don’t get a big monsoon this summer, if you don’t have a well, you won’t be able to irrigate.”

The failure of the dam disrupted the water supply for the entire region around Albuquerque, forcing the city and many of the farmers nearby to rely on limited groundwater and threatening an endangered fish species along the river. This is a surprising twist of fate for a region that in recent years has been regarded as a model for sustainable water management in the west.

“It was very difficult to have El Vado out of the picture,” said Paul Tashjian, the director of freshwater conservation at the Southwest Regional Office of the nonprofit National Audubon Society. “We’ve really outpaced every year for the last couple of years.”

Surface water imports from the El Vado system have generally allowed public officials in Albuquerque to limit groundwater shortages. This echoes the strategies of other major Western cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, which enabled population growth by exploiting diverse water sources for metropolitan regions and the farms that sit outside them. The Biden administration is seeking to replicate this strategy in waterlogged rural areas across the region, more than $8 billion in grants to support pipelines and reservoirs.

But the past decade has shown that this strategy is not foolproof – at least not while climate change is ongoing megadrought across the West. Los Angeles lost water from both the Colorado River and from a series of reservoirs in Northern California, and Phoenix saw declines not only from the Colorado but also from the groundwater aquifers that fuel the state’s cotton and alfalfa farming. Now, with Albuquerque’s decrepit El Vado Dam no longer in use, the city is trying to balance several fragile resources.

El Vado is an odd dam: it’s one of only four in the United States that uses a steel face plate to hold back water, rather than a mass of rock or concrete. The dam has collected irrigation water for Rio Grande farmers for nearly a century, but decades of studies have shown that water seeps through the face plate and undermines the dam’s foundations. When engineers tried to use grout to fill in the cracks behind the faceplate, they accidentally caused the faceplate to bulge out of shape, threatening the stability of the entire structure. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the dam, has suspended construction and is now back to the drawing board.

Without the ability to collect irrigation water for the farmers, the Bureau had no choice but to divert the Rio Grande’s natural flow downstream to Albuquerque. There is a lot of water in the spring, when snow melts from the mountains and rain rushes to the sea. But when the rains increase towards the beginning of summer, the river’s flow reduces to a trickle.

“We run very fast and happy in the spring, and then you’re gone in a pretty big hurry,” said Casey Ish, the conservation program supervisor at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the irrigation district that supplies water to farmers like Garcia. “It just puts a lot of stress on the system late in the summer.” The uncertainty over water rationing is causing many farmers to forego crops they are not sure will see to maturity, Ish added.

Construction crews are trying to repair the El Vado Dam along the Rio Grande in New Mexico.  The federal government could not find a way to stop the seepage behind the steel plate dam.
Construction crews are trying to repair the El Vado Dam along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The federal government could not find a way to stop the seepage behind the steel plate dam.
US Bureau of Reclamation

The beleaguered dam also plays a critical role in providing water to the rapidly growing Albuquerque metropolitan area, which is home to nearly a million people. As the city has grown over the past 100 years, it has drained local groundwater, lowering aquifer levels by dozens of feet until the city acquired a reputation as “one of the greatest water wasters in the West.” Cities across the region have exploited their groundwater in the same way, but Albuquerque has managed to reverse its bad habits. In 2008, it built a $160 million water treatment plant that allowed it to clean water from the distant Colorado River, giving officials a new water source to reduce their groundwater dependence.

The loss of El Vado jeopardizes this achievement. To reach the Colorado River water at the Albuquerque treatment plant, it must travel through the same set of canals and pipelines that deliver Rio Grande water to the city and farmers, and along with the Rio Grande water through the pipes “ride “. Without a steady flow of Rio Grande water from El Vado, the Colorado River water cannot reach the city. This means that in the summer months, when the Rio Grande dries up, Albuquerque must now turn to groundwater to supply its thirsty residential subdivisions.

This renewed reliance on groundwater has stunted the recovery of local aquifers. The water level in these aquifers rose from 2008 to 2020, but it dropped around 2020 and has not moved since then.

“We’ve had to shut down our surface water plant for the past three summers because of low flows in Albuquerque,” said Diane Agnew, a senior official with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, which manages the region’s water. Agnew stresses that aquifer levels are only leveling off, not falling. Still, the loss of El Vado storage would be detrimental to the city’s overall water resilience in the long term.

“We have more than enough supply to meet the demand, but it does change our equation,” she added.

The Bureau of Reclamation is looking for a way to fix the dam and restore Rio Grande water to Albuquerque, but right now its engineers are stumped. In a recent meeting with local farmers, a senior reclamation officer offered an honest assessment of the dam’s future.

“We were unable to find technical solutions to the challenges we saw,” Jennifer Faler, the bureau’s Albuquerque area manager, said in remarks at the meeting.

The next best option is to find somewhere else to store water for farmers. There are other reservoirs along the Rio Grande, including one large dam owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, but repurposing them for irrigation water would involve a lengthy bureaucratic process.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation told Grist that the agency is “working diligently with our partners to develop a plan and finalize agreements to help alleviate the lost storage capacity” and that it “may have the ability to to store some water safely” for farms and cities next year.

Meanwhile, farmers like Garcia are getting impatient. When a senior Bureau official broke the bad news at an irrigation district meeting last month, more than a dozen farmers growing crops in the district stood up to express their frustration at the delays in the restoration process, and Called Reclamation’s announcement “frustrating” and “a shock.”

“If we don’t have any water for the long term, I have to let my employees go, and I think start looking for ramen noodles somewhere,” Garcia told Grist.

Even though there are only a handful of other steel plate dams like El Vado in the United States, more communities across the West are likely to experience similar infrastructure issues affecting their water supplies, according to John Fleck, a professor of water policy at the University of New Mexico.

“We’ve optimized entire human and natural communities around the way this aging infrastructure allows us to manipulate the flow of rivers, and we’re likely to see more and more examples where infrastructure we’ve come to depend on no longer functions as we planned or planned,” he said.

As the West grows drier and its dams and canals continue to age, more communities may find themselves forced to find a balance between groundwater, which is easily accessible but finite, and surface water, which is renewable but challenging to obtain. The loss of El Vado shows that one of these resources cannot be relied upon exclusively and consistently—and in an era of rising temperatures and aging infrastructure, it may not be enough to have both.

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