Effects of El Vado Dam repairs on area economy remain murky

·6 min read

Nov. 27—El Vado Dam's upcoming renovation will make its lake shallower but could bump up Abiquiu Reservoir's levels if water is diverted there during repairs — a process that will affect the region's outdoor recreation and economy by an unknown degree.

While agencies work through water supply questions, one thing is certain: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will begin the first phase of repairs on the 86-year-old Northern New Mexico dam — at an estimated $31 million cost — after releasing spring irrigation water.

Crews will grout behind the steel faceplate, weld the weakened areas and install a synthetic lining over the dam's entire face to better seal water storage. These repairs will require the reservoir to be nearly emptied to protect the workers and the facility.

The second phase will overhaul the dam's spillway and will include building a concrete structure, expanding the chute and installing a new bridge. The reservoir will be able to store water at one-third of its normal capacity during this project.

The first phase will take about a year and will result in N.M. 112 being closed periodically to allow crews and equipment in and out. The second phase, which would start in 2024, has an unknown duration and cost, and would require the highway to be closed while the spillway and bridge are replaced.

David Cooper, who owns El Vado Ranch, said the dam's renovation will be disruptive, especially for lake boaters, but also could be a boon because of construction workers coming into the area.

"It's all kind of wait and see," Cooper said. "I don't see a total adverse thing except for the boaters on the lake."

The visitors who stay in his cabins are a mix of anglers, hikers, rafters, boaters and people who want to enjoy the area, so the dam work shouldn't have a big impact on his business, he said.

The Reclamation Bureau will continue sending water down the Rio Chama from the Heron Reservoir, bypassing the dam during repairs, so those who are fly-fishing and rafting should enjoy sufficient river flow much of the time, agency spokeswoman Mary Carlson said.

The agency tries to keep the flow at least 500 cubic feet per second when it releases water on weekends in the summer but probably won't be able to maintain that intensity during dam work, Carlson said.

"We're going to shoot toward having some sort of rafting flows, but we just don't know if they'll be as consistent," she said.

A decrease would be less of an issue with fly fishers, who prefer lower river levels, she added.

Cooper agreed about the anglers, saying a shallower river would let them wade into the water easier.

The dam's degraded steel lining is allowing water to seep through, and the spillway's steel plates have also deteriorated, prompting agency officials to call for fixing what they deem growing safety hazards.

"We've got to make repairs in order to continue to operate this dam safely," Carlson said.

Cooper said the highway being shut down, especially for a lengthy period during the second phase, will force travelers to take a long detour. It might discourage some people from visiting the area, he added.

On the bright side, the projects will bring in construction workers who buy locally, he said, adding that it would help the area's businesses.

Meanwhile, the renovation could increase short-term water storage at Abiquiu, giving the depleted reservoir a much-welcome boost.

Abiquiu might get some or all of the San Juan-Chama water that's now stored at El Vado.

This water flows from the Colorado River basin through the federal San Juan-Chama system, merging with the Rio Grande before being diverted to Santa Fe, Albuquerque and other users.

Abiquiu also might take water stored at El Vado for the pueblos.

A noticeable rise in Abiquiu's water level could bring back motorized boating on the lake, which has dropped off in the past decade as the prolonged drought has depleted the reservoir, said John Mueller, who manages Abiquiu's operations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The shallower lake now gets more paddleboarding, kayaking and other non-motorized activities, Mueller said, adding that fewer motorboats mean fewer fishermen and water skiers.

Many of the boaters now head up to Colorado, so a more robust lake could draw them to Abiquiu, which would keep their dollars here and benefit regional businesses, Mueller said.

"Instead of traveling further, they'll be able to go to Abiquiu and do those things," he said.

Anita Manzanares, a shift supervisor at Bode's General Store in Abiquiu, said they have done well even with the decline in motorized boating, but an increase in any recreational activity on the lake would help.

"That'll obviously bring a lot of business to our store," Manzanares said. "It would probably extend that kind of busy season."

Many people come out to hunt, hike and fish on the rivers, keeping Bode's busy despite the lake's lowering water levels, she said.

Still, if deepening the lake attracts more day trippers, that could only benefit the store, she said.

The Reclamation Bureau will look at both Abiquiu and Heron for taking on the additional water, Carlson said.

This would be different from native Rio Grande water that officials had aimed to put into Abiquiu. A 2020 law allowed for up to 30,000 acre-feet of water beyond Abiquiu's normal capacity, and would increase the reservoir's level by 10 feet.

An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons.

But plans to divert native water to Abiquiu hit a snag when Texas protested, saying New Mexico should not open new storage while it owes the state 96,000 acre-feet and while Elephant Butte Reservoir to the south has less than 400,000 acre-feet.

The Army Corps, which oversees Abiquiu, won't divert native water to that reservoir unless the entire Rio Grande Compact Commission — of which Texas is a part — approves of the plan.

The 72-year-old compact governs water deliveries among New Mexico, Colorado and Texas.

It doesn't affect water flowing through the San Juan-Chama system or water set aside for pueblos, allowing that water to be stored at Abiquiu.

But Carlson said if the pueblos' irrigation water ended up in Abiquiu, it would be temporary, so the rise in the lake might not last very long.

"It's held until the pueblos need it, and if they don't need it, we move it downstream," she said.

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