Tuesday, 28 July 2015 14:50

A Bit on Why New Mexico is Required to Measure It's Water Resources and How It Is Done

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 The Best Job In The World or Adventures of a USGS Hydrographer In

Northern New Mexico


Arthur Scott



   Just imagine being in the high mountains of northern New Mexico on a sunny, crisp fall day wading a small rooky stream about 20-feet wide and a bit over a foot deep and surrounded with cottonwoods and pine forest.. The creek is loaded with trout that dart at the revolving meter you are using to measure stream velocity. There is  only the sound of the creek and the forest  and the clicking of the meter signal in your headset. The closest habitations are at least ten mile away over a dirt road and I am on a closed private game preserve straddling the New Mexico-Colorado border. Your closest supervisor is sixty miles away and the only communication would be to leave a note in the hotel where you are spending the night. The glory of all this is that you are actually getting paid for all of this. Just like a kid playing in the stream and getting paid for it. This was a large part of my life for several years during the fifties and sixties minus the two years plus I served in the US Army..

    A bit of background is in order to explain why the federal government was willing to pay me for having so much fun. As one example, the state of New Mexico is

party to eight interstate stream compacts that govern the allocation of water withdrawals and usage by each state. Additionally two, the Rio Grande and those in the Colorado River basin are subject to international treaty. The interstate agreements were approved by Congress or dictated by the U. S. Supreme court. The seven interstate-stream compacts in New Mexico are the Rio Grande, Pecos River,  Animas / La Plata River Project, Costilla Creek , Colorado River,  Upper Colorado River, Canadian River and  La Plata River. Of course this requires an accounting for all withdrawals from and return flow to each of these river systems. Federal funding was provided for some of this work through cooperative agreements with the State Engineers Office and some were deemed totally of federal interest. The work was undertaken by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), Water Resources Division as part of its mission to inventory the nations water resources.

   New Mexico was the birth place of systematic river measurement for the United States. In 1889 the USGS set up a training camp for reengineers to  perfect equipment and techniques for river measurement on the Rio Grande at Embudo. This become the first streamflow measuring station in the United States and has operated continuously ever since.

   To accomplish  our mission in New Mexico, the state was divided into three "sub-districts, with an office in each.; one in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and one in Carlsbad. Additionally we had one-man field  offices, operated by a single technician, located in Silver City, San Antonio, Tucumcaari, and Durango, Colorado. The technician in Silver City was also a pilot and covered most of his area by keeping a junk vehicle at many of the small airfields in Southwestern New Mexico, flying to the location and then driving out to measure his assigned streams. He was paid mileage and tie up charges for his plane. Once a month he flew his data into the Albuquerque office.

    Measurement of streamflow was made by measuring flow velocity at 15 - 20 or more locations across the stream along with depth and width. Velocity wasmeasured using individually calibrated meters with a rotating bucket wheel. The hydrographer recorded the number of revolutions within a stop watch measured time. Revolutions were counted by clicks heard through headphone for each revolution or every five revolutions used in fast velocities.. Stream flow measurements were generally of two types, wading and cable depending on the suspension of the meter. These observations were written on a form and the total flow of the stream  was computed .





Price AA Current Meter


    Generally measurements in New Mexico were made by wading the stream in either hip-boots or chest-high waders with the meter suspended from a metal rod to measure the depth and an adjustable mount for the meter so that it could be placed at a specific location above stream bottom. This was the procedure for normal flows with depths that could be waded. The second method was a cable measurement. The meter was suspended by a small cable above 25-,50-, 75-, or 100-pound torpedo shaped weights. The measurement was made from a small, two-pulley, car suspended by a large cable across the river by a tower on each bank. The meter and weight were raised and lowered using a hand-crank and reel. The cable-car  was pulled across the steam by hand and locked into place where each velocity observation was to be made. This method was used during floods and at other times when the river was too deep or swift  to wade. It was defiantly not as pleasant as wading a shallow stream in the sunshine.

   Field trips from the Santa Fe office were either a day trip or a four-night trip. An example of a day trip might be Santa Fe River in Santa Fe Canyon.. Three stream measurements plus two lake-level observations took most of a day. Pleasant during the summer but tedious during the winter when McClure and Nichols were frozen over. Another day-trip, not quite as pleasant, was the Rio Grande at Otowi and Rio Chama at Chamita wide sand bottom channels that required very careful wading.

   Overnight trips usually lasted from Early Monday through Friday. The normal routine was one week out collecting data and one week in the office processing the data. Usually involved measuring Chama River and tributaries or Rio Grande and tributaries. The Taos run was usually a one week trip for two guys. The trip involved either two nights in Taos and two nights in San Luis, Colorado or four nights in Taos. Staying in Taos was fun with good restaurants, lots of female tourists, and lots of bars. San Luis was sleepy and dead.

   Per diem rates in those days were minimal. Generally ten dollars or less per day was deemed adequate to pay for your sleeping quarters and three meals. We learned to economize by hotel choice and sharing rooms when possible. Needless to say, we did not stay at the Taos Inn. I don't remember or even know if I ever knew the name of our hotel of choice in Taos. We all knew it as "Rex's."  It was most likely a very valuable property, however, the owner, Rex, never was interested in selling it. It was a grey-plastered, two-story structure on the corner of State Highway 68 and the street on the north side of the Taos Plaza. There was adequate parking in the rear for government trucks and it was within walking distance of all the pleasures of Taos Plaza.  

  Rex was on old guy, probably late seventies.  He spent his days in the lobby, watching TV, smoking cigars and drinking a bit. The most memorable thing in the lobby to me was a mounted head of a white buffalo. Supposedly at one time the live animal was the property of Taos Pueblo. The word was that Rex had money from back east. He had bought and run this hotel since the thirties. Never heard him speak of any relatives.

   The rooms were adequate with one or two beds, clean sheets, a  wash basin.  The toilet and bath was located down the hall. As USGS employees, we only paid three or four dollars per night for the rooms. If Rex was not around when we checked in, we just took a key from behind the desk and signed a ledger type book. To check, if he was not awake yet, we could simply leave the money and key in the top drawer.

   Our work day usually started before daybreak with a cheap breakfast at an early cafe on the plaza. If we were not likely to be near a place we could stop for lunch, we also bought a "sack lunch" usually a roast beef sandwich on toast (to keep bread from drying out) , chips, and a piece of fruit. However, with careful scheduling we could have lunch at Louie's Diner in Questa which had the best enchiladas in Taos county or at the hotel in Red River which was the only place open during the summer in Red River.

   The other place we often spent at least one night was San Luis, Colorado. We had two choices for accommodations, Mrs. Duran's or the three or four room "hotel" on the second floor of some business facing the  State Highway 522 through town. Mrs. Duran's was an old adobe private residence on the edge of town. Each time a child was born the added a new bedroom so when kids grew up and left, the had a large house with extra space. However, staying in a private home left little privacy. The only drawback to the "hotel" on the main drag was that every morning before daybreak a couple of cowboys would herd a group of cattle through town. At least two of the cows wore bells so it assured one of being awakened and , for me at least, laying awake until the only cafe in town opened for breakfast at 7 AM.

   Three of the notable stations I recall measuring are  1. Rio Pueblo de Taos above Taos Pueblo, 2. Red River above Red River and 3. Rio Grande near Cerro.  Measuring the stream above Taos  pueblo was not difficult.  However the agreement to maintain the station required that we check in at the Governor's office then drive the three or four miles up the road in the canyon. However, at certain times of the year we were forbidden up the canyon above the Pueblo. At other times we had to pick up the Pueblo War Chief at his house on the south side of th pueblo. He rode with us and usually stayed in the truck while we made our measurement.  He was always a nice guy and we had someone to talk to during the drive.

   Red River above Red River was not so pleasant.  It was located a few miles up a one-lane dirt road the went up a mountain and the dropped into the valley. Summer was always interesting because of dodging the tour jeeps carrying Texas tourists driven by college kids. However winter was what made it my least favorite station in the state. The road was closed so no other vehicles to worry about. We usually had four-wheel drive truck with a front mounted electric winch. The routine was to drive until snow depth stopped the truck then leave the truck on the road. Then put on either bear-paw or trail-type snowshoes and walk the rest of the way. Could be a mile or more or just a few hundred yards depending how close you could drive. We had to carry lunch, hip boots, and measuring equipment. On return to the vehicle we could tie the winch to a tree, pull the truck forwards back up and repeat until  the truck was free and able to turn around and drive down the mountain to the next station which was much easier because it was in Questa and a hundred-foot walk..

   The one that I detested most was the Rio Grande near Cerro station. To reach the station we drove north several miles  from Questa and turned off the highway to the west onto a fairly good dirt road through the village of Cerro and then continuing south along the river gorge for several miles to a cattle-trail head into the river at the bottom of the gorge. The trail zigzagged in steep inclines dropping about four hundred feet to the river below.  A measurement was made by wading if the water was low or cable at average and high flows.

Most equipment including wading boots were kept in the station house so normally we did not have to carry large loads. The most arduous and time-consuming effort was the return trip climbing out of the canyon. This was probably herder due to hangovers and or smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.  The sides of the canyon were strewn with large basalt boulders, a favorite haunt of rattlesnakes. I would, even in those days, have to stop and rest usually sitting on one of the boulders. I do hate to admit that my only close encounter was with a big old Herford bull who was descending while I was ascending. I chunked a couple rocks at him and called him a few names to encourage him to leave the trail and let me passed. He just stared at me with big eyes  and unimpressed. So I climbed up on a handy boulder, drank a coke I had carried along and lit a cigarette. Remember this was before the days of hydration and bottled water.  Our water was hanging in a canvas bag off the rear truck bumper to cool by evaporation. Finally he moved past and I continued my ascent and drive to an enchilada at Louie's Diner in Questa.



Yours truly around 1963to1967 at a station at Abiquiu  just off the highway north of Ghost Ranch.


   Stations I recall in the Taos area that I visited and or measured include  six or so ditch measurements around San Luis and Manassas Colorado. Manassas was the home of World Heavy-Weight Champion, Jack Dempsey, "The Manassas Mauler." Monthly visits and measurements were made at the following sites:


Red River above Red River (town)

Red River at Questa

Red River above the State fish hatchery

Red River at the mouth (with the Rio Grande) below the fish hatchery

Costilla Creek above Costilla Dam On Vermejo Park property along with a couple of the following)

Casias Creek near Costilla

Santistavan Creek near Costilla

Costilla Reservoir near Costilla

Costilla Creek Below Costilla Dam near Costilla

Costilla Creek at Amalia

Costilla Creek near Costilla

Acequia Madre at Costilla

Cerro Canal at Costilla

Association Ditch at Costilla

Cerro Canal below Association Ditch at Costilla

Costilla Creek below diversions at Costilla

Costilla Creek near Garcia, CO

Rio Pueblo de Taos above Taos Pueblo

Rio Pueblo at Taos Pueblo

Rio Pueblo near Ranchito

Rio Fernando near Taos

Rio Pueblo de Taos at Los Cordovas

Rio Pueblo de Taos below Los Cordovas (A favorite hippy hang out and bathing facility for nearby communes.)

Rio Grande at Taos Junction

Rio Grande at Embudo


 The ditch stations were seasonal and only operated during irrigation season.  There were also a couple along the high road just south of Taos or Ranchos in the Carson National Forest. I may have forgotten a few but we covered an immense area about  200 +/- square miles. A lot of time was spent driving alone. We were not on a time clock but tried to make four to six stations a day top complete the work, however, some as noted above could eat most of a day. Government trucks in those days did not have radios or air conditioning so one had a lot of time for thinking about the next measurement, the next beer after dinner on the Taos plaza, or whether or not the Texana tourist you danced with last night and who liked cowboy hats, would still be in town.

   In the mid-seventies I transferred to the high-paced whirl of USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia.  Politics, meeting after meeting, meeting the whims of congressional staffers, and defending absolute science. But it took years before I did not have a cold chill looking over my shoulder at a thunderstorm expecting to be called day or night to go make a flood measurement.  However, to this day I remember the absolute peace and solitude of wading Costilla Creek away from people and material distractions. Equal to the peace I found while fishing in the mountains plus I was being paid. The best job in the world!


As a prolog I want to note that during the late seventies or early eighties, the cost of living was deemed too high in Santa Fe  to enable the USGS to transfer in new employees. The Santa Fe office was closed and all activities transferred to the Albuquerque Subdistrict. The photo of me near Abiquiu  was taken by fellow Voces member, Dick Thomas, with whom I shared  untold miles and hours in the cab of a government truck.    







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