The Chama River rafting conditions will be similar to what they were in a typical year after El Vado Reservoir opens. This is thanks to a recent agreement between U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Albuquerque Bernalillo county Water Utility Authority.
The reservoir was filled to eight percent capacity on Sunday, March 27, in preparation for a huge project to rebuild the failing dam. The upcoming dam project was anticipated to create an unusual recreation season on Chama by Taos-based river guides, outfitters, and river guides.
“Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABWUA) is going to permit us to release Heron Lake water, and so we expect to be able do recreational releases in the same way we always do,” Carolyn Donnelly, water operations supervisor at the Bureau of Reclamation, Albuquerque. “In a normal years, El Vado would be operational. However, we might stage the water at El Vado before we release the water. We’ll release it this year from Heron. It will pass through El Vado and then into the Chama.
The Chama, which is the largest tributary of the Rio Grande, is controlled by several dams and storage tanks. The Chama’s dams, reservoirs, and flood control dams exert a great deal of control on the flow of Rio Grande.
The Rio Chama also serves as a conduit for additional water from the San Juan River Basin over the Continental Divide to Heron Lake. This is located alongside El Vado Reservoir and the Chama River. The San Juan-Chama Project water, which is stored in Abiquiu lake, is then released, mainly for municipal consumption in Albuquerque or Santa Fe.
This extra San-Juan Chama Project Water is what makes whitewater rafting possible in the summer months.
“The water has to be moved anyway, between Heron and Abiquiu so in about 1984, we negotiated releases,” timed in summer for the benefit boaters, said Steve Harris (river guide), who founded Far Flung Adventures in 1976. He pointed out that the Bureau of Reclamation had recently worked hard to find a way for recreational releases to be maintained during the El Vado reconstruction.
Harris stated that it was very encouraging news and that Albuquerque had also looked out for boaters.
Santa Fe had already agreed that the bureau would time the San Juan-Chama Project water releases for recreational river users. However, this was only about one-quarter to one third of the water required to keep the river running below El Vado as it does during peak rafting season.
Harris had predicted that this spring would be the best time to run two Class III sections of the Chama that are downstream from El Vado. Now that Albuquerque has agreed to the deal, he believes river runners will be thrilled by the prospect of a relatively normal year.
Donnelly said that it’s too early to know what the early season will look like on the Chama. However, early predictions suggest there will still be enough water for boating.
According to the March monthly forecast, we are showing peak inflows into El Vado at around mid-May. It’s visible up there. But it all depends on how it melts.
Climate change is making snowmelt occur earlier in the years and in shorter time frames.
“Sometimes there are rain-on-snow episodes, like in 2018, there was very little runoff and with a very high peak,” Donnelly stated. “We’ll have better information next month. I think the forecast will rise a little, if anything. We continue to get all these moderate storms, but the snow is still up there.”
Harris pointed out that permits issued in the snowmelt-fed early part of the season are more restricted than later in the summer. There are 10 weeks during this time when water is released on a schedule to recreational purposes. This guarantees good river conditions on certain days.
Ken Whitaker, a Canoeist from Angel Fire, applied this year for a Chama permit but was unsuccessful. He’s thinking of attempting a two day canoe trip below El Vado, to Chavez Canyon, before April 15, which marks when a river permit will be required. Good boating conditions on river are dependent on snowmelt runoff in the early season.
Whitaker stated, “I’m still thinking that I’ll try and get out there.”
Harris stated that there are always more Chama river runners potential than there are permits.
Harris stated, “Unlike the Rio Grande,” Chama permits can be issued through a lottery system. They are unlimited on the Rio Grande.
Donnelly warned that it will still be an unpredictable rafting season between El Vado, Abiquiu.
She stated that safety is the main concern. El Vado Reservoir has a lot of fine sediment that can be harmful to wildlife downstream.
“The watershed up there isn’t very big, so it’s quite uncommon the Chama gets a big stream that goes up dramatically from a massive storm, but that’ll be something we’ll have watch for,” Donnelly stated. “We will do our best to match the spring runoff. We have a stream channel capacity limit of 4,500 cfs. If it reaches 6,000 cfs or 7,000 cfs we won’t increase that.”