SANDIA PUEBLO, NM (AP) - His boots dusty from walking along the banks of the Rio Grande, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor scanned the water's edge and watched a flush of ducks pass before listening to a detailed explanation of the recent work that went into revitalizing this stretch of river in central New Mexico.
The ground remained bare where earth was moved to lower the banks to a more natural state. The dry skeletons of cottonwood trees were place in the river to provide cover for endangered fish. And behind Connor, the thinned forest of cottonwoods and willows showed signs of recovery after a few years of not having to compete with invasive nonnative vegetation.
The restoration work along Sandia Pueblo's section of the Rio Grande is just the latest effort by tribal, state and federal water managers as they grapple with persistent drought across the West, the uncertainties of climate change, endangered species concerns and growing demand for a limited resource.
With the exception of New Mexico's two major river basins - the Rio Grande and the Pecos - Connor said the West so far this year is in "pretty good shape." However, it's not even March and he expects the rest of the year and beyond to be more challenging if the region fails to get more rain.
"We're just looking at every conceivable option to manage the systems more efficiently and supplement water supplies where we can and save storage where we can. My priority right now is to build in enough efficiency and good water management operations," he said, while acknowledging the possibility of water shortages.
In New Mexico, winter storms have brought little more than record freezing temperatures. January marked the lowest precipitation totals for the state as a whole since record-keeping began more than a century ago. State Engineer John D'Antonio described it as a dire situation.
Farther west, more than a decade of drought has hammered the Colorado River Basin, which delivers water to millions of people spread throughout seven states. Resources in the basin have dropped by about half from nearly full levels in 2000, and federal officials have said states like Arizona, California and Nevada could be subject to shortages as early as 2012 if drought conditions persist.
Southern California industry and farms in the San Joaquin Valley have already felt the effects of limited supplies caused by drought and regulatory restrictions.
Despite the grim predictions, Connor said he's hopeful because water managers over the last decade have started to focus less on the crisis of limited supplies and more on finding solutions for providing drinking water and habitat for endangered species as well as meeting interstate and international water delivery compacts.
For Sandia Pueblo, part of the solution has been partnering with the Bureau of Reclamation to restore about 80 acres of land along the Rio Grande. The work has included building a side channel that flows year-round for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.
One of the longest river systems in the U.S., the Rio Grande holds agricultural and cultural significance for the American Indian tribe.
"Projects like this will help the silvery minnow and other fish species survive the dry times, but also the quality of the water," said pueblo Gov. Malcolm Montoya. "The quality of the water is important to the people of the pueblo because at certain times there is a need to immerse in the water and ingest the water."
Connor said it will take a combination of work like that done at Sandia, more efficient water management and sharing agreements among water users to address problems in the West.
"You have to think outside the box and you have to accept other people's interest in the resource," he said.
D'Antonio, New Mexico's top water official, said he has been working the past eight years to develop alternatives for managing water supplies in dry years but court battles and regulatory limitations have slowed the process. He envisions willing agricultural users being able to transfer their water rights temporarily to other users in the event of a shortage, which is already happening in parts of California.
"It could go to drinking water uses, a power company, a potash mine or something else that still allows for employment and the economy to move forward," he said.
A slowly evolving natural disaster is how D'Antonio described drought. He said there's still time for New Mexico to put in place the tools needed for dealing with shortages.
"I think we always have to worry about water," he said, "but we can plan for it and I've always been of the mindset that the glass is half full. I think there are solutions."
D'Antonio and other members of a drought monitoring group are planning to meet next month to discuss New Mexico's situation.
One pressing issue is the state's inability to store water in upstream reservoirs along the Rio Grande for at least the rest of the year. Compact requirements prevent upstream storage when the level of Elephant Butte reservoir on the lower end of the river system is too low. Officials also expect more groundwater pumping in south-central New Mexico this year because irrigators are expected to get less water from the river.
For Connor, the ongoing review of who's in drought on a year to year basis is what keeps him up at night. He easily recites predictions for New Mexico and for the Colorado River Basin, where a 7 to 10 percent reduction in stream flow is anticipated over the next three decades.
"We're not going to solve all the problems," Connor said. "But it's really my role to make sure we're very realistic about the challenges ahead and that we're constantly improving our ability to meet those challenges, be more efficient, manage more effectively and do more collaborative work."