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Estimates of public-supply, domestic, and irrigation water withdrawal, use, and trends in the Upper Rio Grande Basin, 1985 to 2015

September 17, 2021

The Rio Grande flows approximately 670 miles from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of south-central Colorado to Fort Quitman, Texas, draining the Upper Rio Grande Basin (URGB) study area of 32,000 square miles that includes parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. Parts of the basin extend into the United Mexican States (hereafter “Mexico”), where the Rio Grande forms the international boundary between Texas and the State of Chihuahua, Mexico. The URGB was chosen as a focus area study (FAS) for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water Census (NWC) as part of the WaterSMART initiative. The objective of the USGS NWC under WaterSMART is to focus on the technical aspects of providing information and tools to stakeholders so that they can make informed decisions on water availability.

This report contains water-use withdrawal estimates of groundwater and surface water for public-supply, self-supplied domestic, and irrigation water use for years 1985–2015 at 5-year intervals for the 22 drainage basins at the subbasin 8-digit hydrologic unit code (HUC-8) level. Data for additional categories of self-supplied industrial, mining, livestock, aquaculture, thermoelectric, and hydroelectric water use are provided in the accompanying data release to illustrate total withdrawals for the URGB. The additional category data are provided in this report only for the year 2015. Deliveries of water from public-supply systems to domestic users are included and are the only water-delivery data presented in this report. Consumptive use for irrigation is reported for all HUC-8 subbasins for 2015 and for select HUC-8s in the other years beginning in 1985 (the irrigation category includes irrigation for both crop and golf). Water transported outside of the URGB (interbasin transfers) is not included as part of the withdrawals and are not accounted for in any category of use within the URGB.

Estimated total withdrawals for all the water-use categories (including hydroelectric) in 2015 as reported in the USGS compilations in the URGB were 3,152.10 million gallons per day (Mgal/d). Surface water was the dominant source of water used in the URGB, providing about 71 percent of total withdrawals. Nearly all withdrawals were from freshwater sources; there was a small amount of saline groundwater that was used for public supply and self-supplied industrial, which were all reported in Texas. The proportions of total 2015 withdrawals from States in the URGB are 46 percent each in Colorado and New Mexico and 8 percent in Texas. A comparison of 2015 water withdrawals for the URGB—for the categories of public supply, self-supplied domestic, self-supplied industrial, thermoelectric, irrigation, livestock, mining, aquaculture, and hydroelectric—showed that irrigation is the dominant water use, at 74 percent of total withdrawals. Other water-use categories in the URGB that use about 1 percent or greater of the total water use by volume are public supply (9 percent) and self-supplied domestic and aquaculture (each about 1 percent). This report focuses on the higher volume, consumptively used categories of public supply, self-supplied domestic, and irrigation. A discussion on basin population provides context for the categories of public-supply and self-supplied domestic water use.

The population in the part of the basin in the United States grew from 1.36 to 2.26 million people between 1985 and 2015. With the city of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, included, the total population of the URGB grew from an estimated 2.01 to 3.66 million people between 1985 and 2015. The largest concentrations of population are in New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua, with 98 percent of the total number of people in the basin in 1985 and 99 percent of the total in 2015 residing in these states. Albuquerque, El Paso, and Ciudad Juarez are the largest cities in the basin.

Total withdrawals for public supply in the URGB averaged 277 Mgal/d from 1985 to 2015. About 60 percent of the URGB total public-supply withdrawals occurred in New Mexico, which averaged 170 Mgal/d. Groundwater provided 92 and 70 percent of the total withdrawals for public supply in 1985 and 2015, respectively. Deliveries to domestic users from public suppliers are reported for all drainage basins and years, and account for part of the total public-supply withdrawals. In the URGB, domestic deliveries from public suppliers increased from 1985 to 1995; since 2005, domestic deliveries from public supply have declined. The total populations served by public suppliers in the URGB increased by 90 percent from 1985 to 2015. In the URGB, more people were served by public-supply systems than were self-supplied, and the percentage of people on public-supply systems ranged from 81 to 92 percent from 1985 to 2015. Total domestic withdrawals in the URGB (deliveries plus self-supply withdrawals) ranged from 177.49 to 234.83 Mgal/d and peaked in 2005. Domestic use decreased from 2005 to 2010 by 17 percent and remained less than 200 Mgal/d in 2015. The per-capita daily use for the entire URGB fluctuated between the reporting years, but overall, domestic per-capita use across the basin has declined 46 percent from 145 gallons per capita daily (gpcd) in 1985 to 79 gpcd in 2015.

Total irrigation withdrawals in the URGB had a mean value of 2,767.66 Mgal/d from 1985 to 2015 and withdrawals peaked in 1995 at 3,416.84 Mgal/d. Over the 30-year period, irrigation source water in the URGB has ranged from 69 to 84 percent surface water, and the most surface water diverted in the basin for irrigation was in 1995. Groundwater withdrawals for irrigation have fluctuated but overall decreased by 13 percent between 2005 and 2015. Slightly more than one-half of total irrigation withdrawals within the URGB occurred in Colorado, with a mean of 57 percent from 1985 to 2015. From the peak of water withdrawals in 1995 to the conclusion of this study in 2015, total irrigation withdrawals across the study area decreased by 32 percent.

The total number of irrigated lands in the URGB from 1985 to 2015 had a mean of about 800 thousand acres, and more irrigated lands were consistently located in the headwaters of the URGB in the San Luis Valley, Colorado than the remainder of the study basin. In the 30-year period, Colorado had a mean of 68 percent of total irrigated lands whereas irrigated acres in New Mexico had a mean of 26 percent and the remaining 7 percent were in Texas. Since 2000, the number of irrigated acres in the URGB has fluctuated, but overall has decreased by 12 percent.

More land was irrigated with surface systems (surface irrigation includes flood, furrow, and gated pipe systems, hereafter collectively termed “surface”) in the URGB than with other irrigation system types. Across the 30-year period, from 62 to 88 percent of total irrigated lands had surface-system irrigation, and surface systems covered a mean of 69 percent of the URGB’s acres. Microirrigation systems, predominantly in New Mexico and Texas, compose 0.2 percent or less of the irrigated acres in the basin and were first reported in 1995. From 1985 to 2015, the surface systems decreased in the basin by about 38 percent, and the number of acres of sprinkler and microirrigation systems increased. Acres irrigated by sprinkler systems (predominately center pivot systems) have increased 179 percent from about 99 thousand acres in 1985 to 275 thousand acres in 2015. In this dataset, the number of sprinkler acres surpassed the number of surface irrigated acres in 2000. Within the San Luis Valley in Colorado, the acreage of surface irrigation has decreased, and sprinkler irrigation has increased over the 30-year period. In the New Mexico part of the URGB, surface irrigation is reported as the dominant system type, where irrigation by surface systems accounts for 97–98 percent of how water is provided to crops. As in New Mexico, crops in Texas are irrigated primarily by surface systems.

The mean of the mean simulated actual evapotranspiration (ETa) for crops in 2015 across the basin was highest for durum wheat at an estimated 36.00 inches per year (in/yr), and lowest for vegetables at an estimated 19.48 in/yr. Alfalfa and irrigated grass pastures mean ETa had a mean of 31.4 and 27.58 in/yr, respectively, for the basin. Pecans and peppers, both signature crops in the Rio Grande Basin, each had a mean ETa of 30.67 and 30.38 in/yr of mean. In general, mean ETa values for crops were lower in the HUCs of the Colorado San Luis Valley (13010001, 13010002, 13010003 and 13010004) which are more northerly and at higher elevations. The mean ETa for crops increased in the HUCs that are more southerly and at lower elevations in the basin.