Monday, August 12, 2013

Following are some thoughts about Heron Lake in far northern New Mexico. For many New Mexicans, Heron, the largest no-wake lake in the region, is a peaceful oasis and a wonderful escape from urban life. The area is rich in wildlife, including bald eagles, osprey (fish hawks), bats, coyotes, rabbits, mule deer, elk, mountain lions, and bears. The lake hosts a breeding population of cold-water fish, notably Kokanee salmon and huge lake trout. It is a great place for trolling anglers, paddling kayakers enjoying the quiet and views of wildlife, and for sailors, including many who usually keep boats in a marina maintained by the New Mexico Sailing Club but open to all.

Heron Lake was built as a means to store water acquired by New Mexico under the San Juan-Chama project. Simply told, the idea was to give New Mexico water from southern Colorado in exchange for water falling in the northwest corner of the state that flowed into the San Juan and Colorado River basins. The project brings western slope water from the vicinity between Chromo and the back side of the Wolf Creek ski area via tunnels and Willow Creek to Heron Lake. The cities and tribes that paid for the water are called the contractors, and have the right to 96,200 acre feet of water per year, without regard to how much snowmelt water enters the lake in the spring. Albuquerque is the largest of these contractors.

The lake can hold a little more than 400,000 acre feet, so the expected annual inflow and outflow would exchange a quarter of its water. Contractors are subject to a use-it-or-lose-it rule, don't have multi-year storage rights at Heron, and forfeit water they don't take in a given water year. In years past, though, the contractors tended to take most of their water out near the end of their water year, because they weren't charged for evaporation losses until the water left the lake. Because of Heron's deep water, high altitude, cool climate, and frequent winter ice covering, evaporation losses are minimal and Heron is an ideal water storage lake.

After the dam was completed in 1971, Heron Lake spent the remainder of the decade gradually filling. During this era, the New Mexico Sailing Club came into existence, initially using Cochiti and Navajo lakes. A few years later, probably near the end of the decade, the club built a small, simple marina on the north side of Willow Creek cove, using oil drums as floats. The State Park also constructed a marina on the east side of the cove, at the present marina location and in the place of the eastern half of the marina's A dock, with room for about 16 boats.

The following decade, the 80s, were very good years for Heron, with few poor snowmelt years and many years of abundant water. Near the end of the decade, the sailing club made an agreement to take over the state parks marina and expand it six-fold. Even so, during the 1990s, the club wound up with a long waiting list of would-be slip tenants, including both sailboat and power boat owners who enjoyed the peace and quiet of a no-wake lake with a unique population of cold-water fish among other wildlife.

The 96,200 acre feet that the contractors take in a year is undergirded by the estimated so-called "firm yield" of something like 110,000 acre-feet of water that the San Juan-Chama is expected to be able to produce each year. The amount of water that is actually delivered each year depends mostly on the nature of the snow melt in the collection area, but it is also subject to the need to allow the collector streams to keep some of their water, and by the capacity of the Azotea Tunnel and other diversion structures. There are also regulatory limits placed on how much water can be delivered in a given year, and during a ten-year period. Essentially, assuming a long, even snow melt, about double the normal annual water is the most that can be expected.

Unfortunately, in 2003-2004 and again from 2011 through this year, the area has suffered drought and its origin in poor winter snowpacks. The contractors have taken their allocations each year, so the lake has shrunk during the past couple of years, and is now much less than a quarter full. As scientists study the records of the past, many are becoming convinced that the estimated water yields for many western water projects were over-estimated, and even our San Juan-Chama project may be in this category. The "firm yield" may not be sustainable in the long run, in which case Heron Lake is going to have more low-water years than high-water ones.

In addition to climate change or bad luck or El Nin~o whatever cause one wants to blame for the poor snowmelt years, we have more factors that contribute to our perfect drought. There's been a time shift in when the contractors take water -- they no longer tend to wait until the end of the water year, so that means lake levels will tend to average a few feet lower during the summer boating season. And, the largest cities are now using their water and not merely selling it to the feds (for everyone's dear friend, the silvery minnow, or otherwise) or other contractors. For the marina, one last big whammy is silt deposition in Willow Creek Cove, perhaps three feet since the drought of 2004.Unfortunately, Willow Creek cove makes an excellent settling basin for sediments to fall from the water coming in from the creek as the creek bed takes a sharp turn into the Narrows before heading into the main lake.

During the years past of recent memory (1980s and 1990s), Heron Lake was typically 75% to 100% full during summers. An occasional isolated shortfall year was not a big problem because the marina and boat ramps to could accommodate quite a bit of loss. The marina cove wouldn't dry out until the lake was two-thirds empty, and the ramps, with some cleaning, would also function. But, with the lake now down to less than a quarter full, and headed for maybe half of that, there's no cushion to protect the marina and boat ramps from being knocked out of service, and multiple high-flow years will be needed to restore them... not the most likely scenario.

For lake users in general, the news may not be so terrible, provided the state parks department is able to get funding to extend and maintain the existing ramps and perhaps to convert the low-water ramp into a paved ramp usable for larger boats towed by normal highway vehicles. That's still not easy, given the tight budget limits and multi-year planning process of the parks. But, it is something the lake users had best get organized to accomplish, because the low water problem isn't likely to vanish and stay vanished.

For the bordering neighborhood of Laguna Vista, a couple of adjustments could help residents enjoy the lake at lower levels. One would be to negotiate an understanding with the Bureau of Reclamation to secure or confirm access right down to the contemporary lake levels. This has been no problem for concessionaires such as marina operators at other BOR lakes in the state. Another would be to re-initialize whatever old agreement was in place to allow for the installation of a mooring field, and to update this to allow field to follow the available water. This could be a valuable service to Laguna Vista residents, quite a few of whom are or have been recent members or customers of the sailing club and marina.

For the marina, which is owned and operated by the New Mexico Sailing Club under a concession contract with the State Parks, the future is uncertain. It now seems sadly likely that there will be repeated future instances of the marina's Willow Creek cove location becoming too shallow for use by a marina.

Aggressive changes would be to either dredge or excavate the cove, or to move the marina to a deeper part of the lake. However, both options are extremely expensive. Dredging/excavating is probably the most horrendously expensive choice, possibly costing multiple millions of dollars and requiring heavy and specialized equipment. And, even then, the amount of dredging that is feasible and consistent with the cove's topography and the amount of silting, would not be enough to guarantee that the marina would be usable during very low lake levels such as we are experiencing this year. Dredging or excavating would also require environmental reviews and permitting. And, it would be a temporary solution, not permanent.

The move option, which would secure the marina in a deepwater location, would also be fairly expensive to accomplish. As a nonprofit group, the club historically did not have a large budget surplus, and only paid off its borrowing to build the marina during the last big drought. Since then, the club has saved some money for structure replacement, but the amount available is tiny compared to the cost of a new marina or the cost of establishing floating wave barriers to protect the marina if it were to be moved to a deep-water, open-water location that lacks the wave protection of Willow Creek Cove.

It is possible that floating wave barriers could be constructed with mostly donated materials and volunteer labor, but this would be a large undertaking, and all the more difficult to achieve with active membership falling off during a prolonged drought. Construction of a floating wave barrier would likely require the transportation, assembly, and placement of about 5,000 passengers tires or about 1,000 very large (~6' diam.) truck tires, each tire with supplemental flotation, assembled with on the order of a mile of steel cable or conveyor-belt material, and anchored by a few dozen tons of concrete.

Other options for the marina might be to do nothing and hope for the best, but this, too, has risks, both of losing membership, and if prolonged, of risking the club's concession contract. Without a marina to provide services and a safe haven, lake boaters would find themselves at greater risk during rough weather, and the state parks department would be well motivated to seek some sort of on-the-water boat service provider. Additionally, the club has fixed expenses, including insurance that is required by the club's concession contract with the state. During a prolonged drought, the loss of membership and marina income would force the burden of the fixed expenses upon a smaller membership base. The club does not have any other significant sources of income; for example the mast-up storage lot is owned and operated by the state parks, although at one time the state asked the club to consider taking over operation of the lot, but the club declined.

Another might be for the club to seek a concession contract change to allow it to establish a mooring field, courtesy dock, dinghy park, and perhaps a mast-up lot near the La Laja or primitive boat ramps, which allow use of the lake at lower lake levels than the Willow Creek ramp. A limited wave barrier would still be needed, but it would not need to provide as high a level of protection as one for a marina structure, and the moorings themselves would be relatively inexpensive to establish.

What does all of this mean? It does mean that the lake is likely to be different than in the past, and that lake users can expect to be faced with ongoing challenges and adjustments. The future Heron Lake will go up and down with drought cycles, and users will need to be very flexible in order to enjoy the lake as it changes. Hazards will appear and disappear, keeping boaters on their toes... or else they may be on their tows.

The boat ramp and marina issues will need leadership, planning, community and volunteer support, and funding in order to provide boaters with facilities that can be used at a broader range of lake levels than is now the case. There will be periods of good years, such as we enjoyed from 2005 to 2010, but also dry years, and we who love the lake need to be prepared for both the good and the bad and respond to the challenges of change.


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