Fishing for good news in swollen rivers

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By Sherry Robinson

My neighbors, who like to fish in Bluewater Lake, have found it harder and harder to get their boat in the diminishing water. It’s a familiar complaint around the state, as the drought draws lake and reservoir edges farther away from boat ramps.
With record-breaking rain in recent weeks — more three times the average over much of the state — recreation managers suddenly had the opposite problem. Lake levels at Bluewater, in western New Mexico, rose six feet, according to the state Department of Game and Fish. Cochiti Reservoir was up 13 feet; Conchas Lake, five feet; Caballo Lake, six feet. Ute Lake and Navajo Lake also have ample water. In many areas, boat ramps reopened.
The winner may be Sumner Lake, where the water level rose about 23 feet within a few days and the east side boat dock had to be moved 14 times. At this writing Brantley Lake State Park was closed to boating and swimming because of safety concerns related to heavy rains and runoff. In fact, the four main Pecos reservoirs — Santa Rosa, Sumner, Brantley and Avalon — zoomed from 11 percent to 92 percent of capacity, according to news reports.
Irrigators are overjoyed, although a number of systems required repairs to levees, canals and acequias. Some irrigation districts, especially in southeastern New Mexico, have enough water for next year. That sound you hear is a big sigh of relief.
Then there’s Elephant Butte. The state’s biggest reservoir went from 60,507 acre-feet in July, to 93,327 on Sept. 11, to 139,976 on Sept. 19, and is still pretty empty, at about 6 percent of capacity, and many of its boat ramps are still closed because of low water.
How is this possible?
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District explained to its members: “We still do not have any water in storage. The rain fell mostly in places where it entered the river directly without passing through storage reservoirs. Once flood waters are evacuated and if no additional rains occur, we could again see low flows on the river and possibly not enough water for all irrigators.”
The good news for this district is that flows will probably be adequate, and between banked water, reduced consumption and a little luck, it can squeak to the end of the irrigation season.
The bigger picture is, while this big storm helped, it didn’t make up for all the storms we didn’t get.
So the joy, like the rain, isn’t equally distributed. And even though the rains were so bountiful they became disasters over large areas, it doesn’t change the overall picture, experts say. You know which picture: climate change, three years of severe drought, water demand that exceeds supply, water rights that exceed real water, regional water compacts written during very different times, and the tug-of-war between various interests.
All water discussions point out that agriculture represents the lion’s share of use, and the implication is that thirsty cities and industry will buy up agricultural water, leading to disappearing farms and ranches.
I’m not sure it’s that gloomy. When my son worked for the state engineer’s office, he said that every week brought elderly people into the office who wanted to sell their water rights. They could no longer manage, and their kids weren’t interested in taking over. What we might see is the sidelining of marginal operations; determined farmers and ranchers will soldier on.
If you’re a believer in market forces, the market will move water and money where they need to be. If you’re not a believer, the market will still move water and money, and the state could use a restraining hand. Either way, the state engineer could use a bigger budget and more muscle to ride herd on the process.
The storm didn’t change our underlying problems, but it bought some time.