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Feds Poised to Bless More Storage in Elephant Butte Reservoir

Green Group Scorns Missed Opportunities to Rethink the Rio Grande

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is primed to award a long-term contract (through 2050) to the Albuquerque-Bernalillo Water Utility Authority to store 50,000 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water in Elephant Butte Reservoir despite its impacts on flows in the Rio Grande. In January of 2017, Reclamation passed on the anticipated approval recognizing that it had not analyzed the environmental impacts on flows in the Rio Grande above Elephant Butte Reservoir. However, now after completing a cursory review of the upstream impacts in an environmental assessment, Reclamation plans to approve the additional storage in Elephant Butte Reservoir. 

“This is a missed opportunity for Reclamation to lead the Rio Grande Basin to a more sustainable water future,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Elephant Butte Reservoir—with evaporation rates double that of its upstream counterparts—is the last place we should store water in a warming climate.” 

The Water Authority has stored a portion of its San Juan-Chama Project water—water imported to the Basin—in Elephant Butte Reservoir since 1983, when Reclamation approved the original 25-year contract. This storage provides the Water Authority with the last chance to capture this imported water and transfer it back upstream for use. However, since the original contract was granted the landscape has changed significantly. First, the warming climate has diminished river flows and increased evaporation losses from reservoirs. Second, water managers are now under a legal mandate to protect and recover several endangered species—the Rio Grande silvery minnow, Southwestern willow flycatcher, and yellow-billed cuckoo, among others—that depend on dynamic and perennial river flows for survival. The reshuffling of water implicit in grant of the storage contract impacts timing and amount of flows in the Rio Grande and Rio Chama in the middle valley. 

“As circumstances change so should the solutions,” added Pelz. “Blindly granting another long-term contract to continue the status quo without evaluating a range of options is not what is best for the Rio Grande and it violates the law.” 

Reclamation originally evaluated the environmental impacts of the project as a part of a more comprehensive (yet geographically limited) review of the 2008 Operating Agreement—an agreement between Reclamation, Elephant Butte Irrigation District, and the El Paso County Water Irrigation District—that hopes to settle disputes between the parties and set out a revised system for allocating water under the Rio Grande Project. However, based on Guardians’ comments during this process, Reclamation declined to approve the long-term contract at that stage citing the need for additional analysis of upstream impacts. 

“Climate change is already upon us in the Southwest and the consequences to the Rio Grande are predicted to be dire,” added Pelz. “Burying our heads in the sand is not going to make it go away. This is a prime opportunity to begin adjusting accordingly and taking bold actions to rethink how, when and where we store and release water to ensure a living Rio Grande and healthy communities.”


 

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