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Moving reservoir storage upstream could save the river
SANTA FE, N.M.—WildEarth Guardians released a new report and website today setting forth a bold vision and detailed solution for restoring flows to the ailing Rio Grande in New Mexico. The analysis by Guardians—to determine the water savings possible by moving low-elevation storage to high-elevation reservoirs—presents a 21st century solution to the complicated problems plaguing the desert Southwest.
The group’s idea of changing how we operate existing reservoirs to save water and help remedy the challenges facing the Rio Grande is not a new one. In 2005, a group of water managers in the Middle Rio Grande valley (the water acquisition and management subcommittee of the endangered species collaborative program) set just such an evaluation as a high priority. The committee sought to evaluate the water savings potential of different reservoir operations to minimize reservoir evaporation and to maximize conservation. Stakeholders in the valley, however, killed this concept by not allowing the committee to pursue it any further.
“People don’t like change,” said Jen Pelz, the director of the Wild Rivers Program at WildEarth Guardians. “However, our warming climate is already fundamentally altering the Southwest and is predicted to have dire consequences on the Rio Grande. We aim to champion solutions that will create a more flexible, resilient system to sustain a living river and healthy communities into the future.”
The report focuses on the century old Elephant Butte Reservoir that lies in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert. This gigantic reservoir (4 miles wide and 40 miles long) evaporates more than twice as much water as its upstream counterparts on the Rio Chama (Heron, El Vado, Abiquiu Reservoirs). The amount of water lost to evaporation in a given year can reach 230,000 acre-feet. One acre-foot is enough water to supply a family of four for one year. Guardians calls into question the utility of such a reservoir given the changing climatic conditions in the century to come.
As an alternative to reliance on Elephant Butte Reservoir, the group quantifies the water conserved by developing two alternate storage scenarios that take advantage of upstream storage space. Guardians concludes that storing water in high-elevation reservoirs in the Rio Grande would save about 40,000 acre-feet (in a dry year) and 85,000 acre-feet (in a wet year).
“Uncovering a way to free up a significant amount water in the system should motivate the stakeholders to pursue this opportunity,” added Pelz. “This water, if dedicated back to the river, could sustain flows and protect fish, wildlife and plants in one of the most threatened, yet most diverse, reaches of the Rio Grande.”