Downstream depletions

 

The practices of San Luis Valley farmers also have dramatic consequences for communities downstream ("Farming on the Fringe," HCN, 2/18/13). The Rio Grande Compact allows the dewatering of the main stem of the Rio Grande through Taos County, N.M. Frequently, because of the heavy irrigation demands of the San Luis Valley farmers, the river is drained virtually dry.

To pay Colorado's water debt to downstream users, a hole was dug through the Continental Divide in order to bring water from the San Juan-Colorado drainage into the Chama, which joins the Rio Grande in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo just north of Española. This perpetuates the dewatering of the river to the north of that confluence and severely damages the economy of Taos County, one of the poorest counties in the nation.

The dewatered section of the Rio Grande Gorge was declared one of the nation's first wild and scenic rivers by Congress in 1968. With adequate water, the section known as the Taos Box is a world-class whitewater run, but for much of the season, there is too little water in the river to run the Box. Some years, we are unable to run it at all. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande, in the form of bales of hay on tractor-trailer trucks, travels south by road parallel to the riverbed. Hay is one of the primary crops grown in the San Luis Valley, and a large percentage of it goes to feed cattle on dairy farms in southern New Mexico.

A reasonable amount of water crossing the state line could be put to beneficial use for recreation, wildlife and the preservation of the natural ecosystem. Tourism is a primary source of income in Taos County, and outdoor recreation makes up a large proportion of that. We have a world-class attraction, which, due to the practices of the San Luis Valley farmers, we cannot utilize. Rafting is a non-consumptive use. We can provide considerable economic benefit by simply riding on the water as it goes to downstream users.

Cisco Guevara
Executive Director, New Mexico River Outfitter Association
President, Los Rios River Runners
El Prado, New Mexico

Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
May 06, 2013 08:48 AM
From reader Margy Robertson:

The 4/15 HCN included a letter from Cisco Guevara, from Taos area, blaming San Luis Valley, CO, farmers for "dewatering" the Rio Grande River, preventing two named groups he heads from making enough money from their rafting businesses. It's full of errors of fact, so draws false conclusions. Here's Why:
 
1. Several major rivers originate in Colorado's high country, flowing east or west from the Continental Divide. Being semi-arid country, snowpack is critical for providing water to cities and rural areas. Since all those rivers leave the state, a way to allocate water fairly to downstream states was needed, so Compacts were created between affected states. All have governed water distribution many years.
 
2. The Rio Grande Compact includes Colorado, New Mexico and Texas (now suing NM for failure to deliver
TX full share). Colorado sends a large percentage downstream yearly, carefully measured along the way, meets its full obligation and sometimes more. That is not "dewatering" but fair allocation of a scarce resource, by agreement of all 3 states. A local water manager has said many New Mexicans don't know of the Compact; seems odd, but perhaps Taos river runners don't either.
 
3. The Rio Grande begins high, east of the Divide, flows SE through SLV, then south to next-door New Mexico. SLV is known for high-quality crops, potatoes being major, as is alfalfa—much is top-grade, bought by NM dairies (not criticized, curiously). Hay trucks help NM's economy. SLV farmers don't decide what goes downstream; the Compact does. CO can use its legal share regardless what's grown, if anything.
 
4. Don't rafting companies know another major drought occurs now? The Rio Grande snowpack is at 70% of average now, a poor outlook ahead, meaning less water for everyone. SLV farmers already struggle with curtailment due to aquifer depletions due to droughts, but not for owing downstream users.
 
5. The "hole" through the Divide that "perpetuates the dewatering of the river to the north" is a bit silly. It exists, just below the Rio Blanco headwaters on the west slope, the clear reference. Long ago, Albuquerque acquired 70% of the river for itself, and built the cross-Divide tunnel. The other 30% remains in the river. We've known that history for years, having property down the same valley. It has precisely nothing to do with the Rio Grande watershed on the east side, so is irrelevant.
 
I learned/worked on water issues 30 years, most for CO Realtors (retired now), know plenty, no "expert," but know several who are. CO has an excellent website, much information is available in the State Water Engineer's section. Or, google CO Foundation for Water Education, which offers citizens' guides.
 
Rafting as a business is fairly recent, miniscule in a larger context, if big in Taos. Recreation doesn't trump agriculture anyway. Changing the Compact for rafters' gain won't happen. Maybe they should learn before complaining, or, admit they're in a marginal region for their occupation, so will profit less. -- Sincerely, Margy Robertson