Upper Rio Grande Basin water-resource status and trends: Focus area study review and synthesis

Journal of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers
By: , and 



The Upper Rio Grande Basin (URGB) is a critical international water resource under pressure from a myriad of climatic, ecological, infrastructural, water-use, and legal constraints. The objective of this study is to provide a comprehensive assessment of the spatial distribution and temporal trends of selected water-budget components (snow processes, evapotranspiration (ET), streamflow processes, and groundwater storage) using integrated analyses, such as watershed modeling and water availability and use data in the URGB over the past three decades. A spatially distributed snow evolution modeling system simulated snowpack processes over 34 years (1984–2017). It highlighted snow water equivalent declines from -35 to -77 mm/decade with widespread variability across elevation zones and land cover types. Gridded actual ET data from the SSEBop model were developed and tested for the URGB and demonstrated that all land-cover types had significant decreasing trends (1986-2015) ranging from -14 to -80 mm/decade. Conductivity-mass-balance (CMB) hydrograph separation results found that baseflow forms a large component of total streamflow, ranging from 29 to 69% (49% average) of total streamflow at 17 URGB sites upstream of Albuquerque, NM. Three of 4 graphical hydrograph separation methods in the U.S. Geological Survey Groundwater Toolbox were found to be inappropriate for estimating baseflow in the URGB; the most promising method, baseflow index (BFI) Standard, was optimized using CMB data and tested at three URGB sites, with resulting overestimation of 0 to 47%. Simulated changes in groundwater storage were extracted from historical and recent groundwater-flow models of select alluvial basins (San Luis, Española, Middle Rio Grande, and Tularosa-Hueco). In general, decreases in groundwater storage were observed from 1903 to 2013 except for the San Luis alluvial basin (Colorado), where periods of recovery are observed. The PRMS hydrologic model was successfully calibrated for 9 near-native subbasins (Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency 0.47 to 0.85) and parameters translated to the remaining subbasins; compared to simulated near-native flows (with minimal influence of reservoirs or diversions), observed Rio Grande streamgage flows demonstrated reductions of 40% or more for New Mexico and Texas areas of the basin. Significant decreasing trends (1980-2015) in precipitation, snowmelt rate, streamflow, and baseflow were observed at many of the 12 streamgage basins studied, which suggests that the decreasing trends for actual ET may be related to overall decreasing water availability in the basin, with negative implications for agricultural production and groundwater abstraction. Water security concerns arise from our findings of higher fraction precipitation as rain, slower snowmelt rates leading to decreasing streamflow production, and an increasing fraction of baseflow, all of which will affect the timing and magnitude of water available for human needs in the basin.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Upper Rio Grande Basin water-resource status and trends: Focus area study review and synthesis
Series title Journal of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers
DOI 10.13031/ja.14964
Volume 65
Issue 4
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, St. Joseph, Michigan www.asabe.org
Contributing office(s) New Mexico Water Science Center, Texas Water Science Center
Description 21 p.
First page 881
Last page 901
Country Mexico, United States
Other Geospatial Upper Rio Grande Basin
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