The Drought Has Almost Completely Dried Up The Rio Grande

California may be snagging all the headlines, with Governor Jerry Brown's strict statewide water restrictions, but other states are suffering from a major drought, too. The entire West — including Texas, Arizona, and Colorado — is facing the consequences of raised temperatures, little to no rainfall this month, shrunken snowpacks (by half!), hastened evaporation, and reduced reservoirs.

The Rio Grande technically runs for 1,900 miles, stretching from southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. But as of late, farms and cities have been using up almost all of it before it even reaches El Paso — hundreds of miles from the gulf.

So, federal officials are being forced to managing the waterway for drought for a fifth consecutive year. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released the annual operating plan for the Middle Rio Grande on Thursday.

The San Juan-Chama Project is a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation interbasin water transfer project located in New Mexico and Colorado. For a second year, cities that rely on San Juan-Chama water, like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, will see their allocations cut.

Like the Colorado River in the Rockies and the Sacramento River in California, the Rio Grande gets much of its water supply from melting mountain snow — and those snowpacks just keep getting smaller, faster.

The New York Times has more:

Rising temperatures are the reason. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages much water in the West, reported in 2013 that average temperatures in the upper Rio Grande, in Colorado and New Mexico, rose almost 2.8 degrees during the 40 years ending in 2011 — and could rise an additional four to six degrees by 2100. The 40-year increase, twice the global average, was beyond anything seen in the last 11,300 years. Future warming “has the potential to cause significant environmental harm and change the region’s hydrology,” the bureau’s analysis stated.

But, unfortunately, it seems it's only going to get worse. While the reclamation bureau acknowledges that climate forecasts will always be unpredictable, its 2013 analysis found that the Rio Grande could lose roughly a third of its water by the end of this century.

So, in many places along the Rio Grande, governments and farmers are both cutting their use of water and finding innovative ways to make more of it — and El Paso is leading the way. According to the Times, its irrigation district and water authority are building their own 400-acre rainwater basin, and in 2017, they plan to build an $82 million plant to recycle sewage into 10 million gallons a day of drinkable water. El Paso now uses less water per person (about 130 gallons a day) than any other city in Texas.

As it seems like climate conditions are only becoming more dire, the aridity of the West is likely here to stay. But with further conservation efforts and more cooperation among water users, the Rio Grande’s users could find a way to endure it — but it certainly won't be easy.

(h/t The New York Times)

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