Streamflows not historic but still a 'good runoff'

By Cody Hooks
Posted 5/9/19

If you happened to be sitting by a river -- the Río Grande, let's say -- at any time in the last week or so, it's likely you noticed that flow was strong, even …

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Streamflows not historic but still a 'good runoff'


If you happened to be sitting by a river -- the Río Grande, let's say -- at any time in the last week or so, it's likely you noticed that flow was strong, even stronger than it has been all spring.

From Costilla to Arroyo Hondo to Taos and the southern stretches of the county, rivers and streams are roaring to life, thanks to a slowly melting snowpack that is more or less normal, but exciting after last year's crippling drought.

"What a great winter for Northern New Mexico!" read the May edition of a monthly water forecast provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. For a usually sober report from a government agency, the excitement was almost palpable.

In the headwaters of the Río Grande, almost every gauging station, which clocks water levels dozens of times a day, are seeing flows close to the max since records started to be kept decades ago, said Chris Romero, the author of the NRCS report.

For example, the Río Grande in the areas around Taos reached a particularly robust, though not historic, flow last Wednesday (May 1).

Near Cerro, the Río Grande hit 1,601 cubic feet per second (cfs). Last year, it was running at 106 cfs. At the station near Taos Junction Bridge, the río reached 2,450 cfs; last year, it was at a measly 223 cfs. Later in the year, the Río Grande reached historic lows.

"It's somewhat of a surprise," said Sig Silber, a water expert and analyzer of weather patterns who lives in Santa Fe.

"When we have an El Niño, that tends to mean wetter for us [in New Mexico]. Typically, a weak El Niño doesn't have much of an impact on precipitation. If anything, this has been a weak El Niño," Silber said, adding that by his estimations, the global weather pattern that helped bring snow to New Mexico hardly even qualifies as a bona fide El Niño.

But still, the winter dumped enough snow for it to be something to celebrate. Romero said that the last time he could recall snowpack similar to this year was more than a decade ago, in 2008. He said 2019's snowpack was even better.

"We've been very lucky," said Silber. "Those storms have gone across the northern area where the mountains," and the headwaters of the state's biggest river, are located, he said. "That's the best place for them to be because that's where you get the snow accumulation."

As exciting as the streamflow is for farmers, acequia irrigators and people itching to get on a raft for the season, it's far from unheard of for our area.

In 1949, the Río Grande near Cerro peaked at 15.78 feet; as of Wednesday (May 8), it was only at 7.1 feet.

"There have been higher years, however, not for some time," Romero said.

Part of the reason for the current flows is that this has so far proved to be a normal year, buttressed in the past by widespread, historic drought and in the future by models that largely predict warmer and drier conditions for the Southwest due to climate change.

When it comes to temperature, cooler days and nights mean a slower melt, and that means a more measured flow of water down the streams and acequias.

"We will see a much more normal runoff scheduled this year as opposed to the past five. Previous years have seen complete melt out of the Sangres around this time [beginning of May], which is a month early," said Romero.

But since late last year, "the weather has remained cool enough throughout the winter and into spring, unlike previous years, that [it's] retaining that snowpack until, I expect, around June," he said.

And that means that even more water is on the way.

"There is still a large portion of high-elevation snowpack above 10,000 feet that is yet to melt off," he said.

Streamflow in the Río Grande headwaters in the coming month are expected to be be about 145 percent of the long-term average.

Furthermore, the streams of New Mexico are getting a boost from precipitation. Statewide, precipitation for the water year (which begins in October) is already at 114 percent of the long-term average.

And that's good news not just for the rivers, but the forests that surround them.

"The significant winter snowpack and spring precipitation is helping to improve forest conditions," said Denise Ottaviano, spokesperson for the Carson National Forest. "The increased runoff is replenishing soil moisture, enhancing vegetation growth, recharging the local water tables and invigorating riparian vegetation. As trees get more water and become healthier, they are more resistant to insect and disease. More water means more abundant forage and cover providing better habitat for an array of wildlife species," she said.

Still, as with all good things, it's not likely to last.

Ottaviano reminded folks that "without continued moisture over multiple years [and] seasons, we could be back into drought conditions as early as next year."


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