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US dedicates $60 million to saving water along the Rio Grande as flows shrink and demands grow

| May 11, 2024 3:25 PM

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. government is dedicating $60 million over the next few years to projects along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and West Texas to make the river more resilient in the face of climate change and growing demands.

The funding announced Friday by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland marks the first disbursement from the Inflation Reduction Act for a basin outside of the Colorado River system. While pressures on the Colorado River have dominated headlines, Haaland and others acknowledged that other communities in the West — from Native American reservations to growing cities and agricultural strongholds — are experiencing the effects of unprecedented drought.

Water users and managers can't afford to waste one drop, Haaland said, sharing the advice her own grandmother used to give when she and her cousins would carry buckets of water to their home at Laguna Pueblo for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

“She was teaching us how precious water is in the desert,” Haaland said, standing among the cottonwoods that make up a green belt that stretches the length of the river from the Colorado-New Mexico border south into Texas and Mexico.

Haaland noted that parts of the river have gone dry through the Albuquerque stretch in recent years. In fact, a decades-long drought has led to record low water levels throughout the Rio Grande Basin.

“When drought conditions like this strike, we know it doesn’t just impact one community, it affects all of us,” she said, pointing to the importance of investing in water projects throughout the basin.

One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking water for millions of people and supplies thousands of farmers with water for crops. Management of the river has sparked legal battles over the decades, with the most recent case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court as New Mexico, Texas and Colorado seek approval of a settlement that will help ensure they have more flexibility in the future.

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, a New Mexico Democrat, said improving sustainability along the Rio Grande will help the state meets obligations under a decades-old compact to deliver water downstream to Texas and ultimately Mexico.

Irrigation districts in southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, will work with the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop projects that will benefit the river and endangered species that inhabit the basin.

The work will range from capturing more stormwater runoff to improving existing infrastructure. Officials said the savings could result in tens of thousands of acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.

In all, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion for mitigating drought in 17 western states, with the priority being the Colorado River Basin. However, the legislation also carved out $500 million for water management and conservation projects in other basins that are experiencing similar levels of long-term drought.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said funding for other basins will be announced later this year, with the goal of putting the money to use over the next four years.

On the Rio Grande, prolonged drought and heavy reliance on groundwater pumping has reduced surface water supplies, resulting in decreased efficiency and lost wildlife habitat.

By capturing more stormwater and increasing storage, officials said they could recharge aquifers and reduce irrigation demands.

Some of that work already is happening in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which serves about 5,000 farmers in southern New Mexico. Near the farming village of Rincon, officials are working to slow down runoff and keep sediment from clogging channels that feed the river.

It's among several projects that the irrigation district has proposed to federal officials to save water, protect communities from seasonal flooding and restore habitat.

Irrigation district manager Gary Esslinger and Samantha Barncastle, a water attorney who represents the district, traveled to Albuquerque on Friday to participate in a briefing with Haaland and other officials. They described the efforts as “re-plumbing” the West with irrigation and flood control systems that can accommodate the changing conditions.

“It’s quite a large vision,” Barncastle said, “but it’s what everyone should be doing — thinking big is the only way to resolve the climate crisis.”