Reclamation’s El Paso Field Division held a public meeting on the 2004 operations of Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs on October 30. Wayne Treers, Hydraulic Engineer, presented several operational plans, including lake level predictions for both reservoirs during the 2004 irrigation season, based on spring runoff volumes varying from average to only 10 percent of average.
“We wanted to share this information with the general public because many people have a major interest in recreation, fishing, and other pursuits,” said Filiberto Cortez, manager of Reclamation’s El Paso Field Division.
The El Paso Field Division annually holds operations meetings in Truth or Consequences about the upcoming water year. This year, recreationers and the supporting businesses were surprised when Governor Richardson sealed a deal with Texas to release credit water stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir. The agreement was reached before El Paso Field Division had presented various scenarios for 2003, to the public. The deal caused a public uproar last year. People were frustrated that the Governor did not consider the impact to the local economy nor discuss his plans with them prior to making the decision to relinquish credit water. They were also afraid that the water levels would drop sooner and more than normal under the credit water relinquishment than they would during a typical irrigation season.
Through a series of meetings held by the State of New Mexico and by Reclamation, the public was educated about the Rio Grande Compact and the Rio Grande Project authorizing legislation. With 25 years of full to near-full water levels, many were unaware or had forgotten that the primary purpose of the reservoirs was for irrigation, and that recreation was only a benefit of the primary purpose.
The El Paso Field Division was able to allocate the released credit water to the Rio Grande Project water users in early May 2003 for irrigation. The El Paso Field Division presented its Annual Operating Plan of Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs to the public in a series of public meetings from May 12 – May 21. And, in fact, the water levels for 2003 were not much lower than they would have been without the agreement.
“Storage levels in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs are now at 25-year lows. With severe drought continuing in the upper Rio Grande Basin, we anticipate that lake levels at Elephant Butte Reservoir will be even lower in 2004,” said Treers. “Even if we receive average runoff to Elephant Butte Reservoir next spring, we predict that Elephant Butte Reservoir will drop 21 feet by the end of next irrigation season.”
The worst case scenario would drop the two million acre-foot-capacity reservoir to less than 7,000 acre-feet.
At this year’s meeting, the public was resigned to low water levels for 2004 and asked about sources of water to fill a recreation pool. Treers and Cortez said that finding water to fill the recreation pool would be possible but difficult. The Rio Grande native water is over-appropriated and all of the San Juan-Chama Project water is appropriated in existing contracts. Presently, the only potential sources for water to fill the recreation pool would be a transfer of irrigation water from croplands on the Rio Grande Project, and transferring an existing San Juan-Chama Project contractor’s water to the recreation pool.
New Mexico State Parks has been assisting concessionaires at the reservoirs by helping move facilities closer to the ever-dropping shoreline, and some major moves of concessionaires are being considered.