The US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has announced a suspension of construction activities at El Vado Dam, situated on the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico. The decision comes as a result of significant structural concerns necessitating upgrades to ensure the dam’s continued safety and functionality.

Originally completed in 1935 by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and rehabilitated in 1955 by USBR, El Vado Dam plays a crucial role in providing irrigation water for the Middle Rio Grande Valley and boats 8MW hydro capacity.

Concerns regarding the dam’s integrity arose during routine inspections, prompting evaluations and corrective action studies under the Safety of Dams program. Initial efforts to modify the dam were undertaken to address issues related to seepage and the integrity of the spillway. However, subsequent assessments revealed that the condition of the steel faceplate and underlying supports was more severe than initially anticipated, rendering the ongoing construction ineffective.

Wayne Pullan, Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Basin Regional Director, remarked, “We started construction of the least cost viable alternative, but our experience during construction was that the alternative would not be effective in resolving our concerns.”

As a result, Reclamation has halted construction and is collaborating with technical experts to develop new strategies to ensure the dam’s safety and restore its ability to store irrigation water effectively.

In the interim, USBR has initiated measures to determine a safe reservoir elevation for temporary water storage while long-term solutions are explored. The need for alternative storage options has been exacerbated by recent water storage restrictions stemming from identified seepage and spillway issues, compounded by prolonged drought conditions over the past two decades.

The initial construction contract for El Vado Dam was awarded in 2021, with work commencing in 2022. However, unforeseen field conditions led to challenges, including unsuccessful attempts to address seepage concerns through backfill grouting.

Reclamation remains committed to collaborating with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and other stakeholders to identify alternative storage options within the confines of the Rio Grande Compact. The compact, an agreement among the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, governs water allocation in the Rio Grande Basin.

Jennifer Faler, Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office Manager, emphasized the agency’s dedication to ensuring the integrity of El Vado Dam while navigating the complexities of water management regulations. She stated: “We understand that this lengthened timeline is difficult news, especially for members of the community who rely on irrigation, but taking shortcuts is not the prudent path and we need to take the time to do this right.”