ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Sitting in his office on the outskirts of this sprawling desert city, Jeff Whitney remembers a poster that hung at an Arizona ranch where he worked as a teenager. A crotchety old cowboy smirked from the wall and the caption read, "There's a lot about this outfit that they didn't tell me."
A native of Wickenburg, Ariz., a small town
about an hour's drive north of Phoenix, and a former Hot Shot
firefighter, Whitney has a reputation for knowing his way around
the Southwest. As a planner on the Prescott National Forest, he
worked with a coalition of ranchers, researchers and agency
officials to create a pioneering watershed management
"I've lived and worked with
fourth-generation Arizona ranchers. I've been in a lot of these
people's shoes," says the burly, mustached biologist. "The only way
you're really going to be successful is by finding some kind of
Talk like this earned Whitney the
Forest Service Chief's award in 1993. A year later, the same kind
of talk landed him at the bargaining table, struggling for
compromise in the middle of an epic tug of war over water on the
In August of 1994, Whitney was
transferred to the Albuquerque office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service. His charge was to lead an ambitious restoration effort on
the middle stretch of the Rio Grande, from Cochiti Dam west of
Santa Fe down through the wide, sloping Middle Valley to the
reservoir at Elephant Butte.
Returning the middle
Rio Grande, now more plumbing than river, to something of its
former greatness would be a mammoth task. The federal Bureau of
Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers use dams to ration the
river's flow, and levees, jetties and drains to confine it to a
narrow strip of bottomland. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy
District diverts the river into hundreds of miles of irrigation
ditches to feed acequias and backyard farms. Whitney's own agency
uses the river to water the engineered fields of the Bosque del
Apache National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts hundreds of
thousands of migratory birds each winter.
restoration would be further complicated by New Mexico's status as
the only Western state without an instream-flow law; if an
irrigator or city leaves water in the river, someone else can pull
it out. Moreover, none of the water rights on the Rio Grande in New
Mexico have been adjudicated, so the conservative approach is to
use as much water as you can, to establish a
But by the late 1980s, concern was growing
over the decline of the cottonwood forest or "bosque" and native
fish that depend on a healthy river. In 1993, researchers released
a blueprint for restoration that had the support of scientists, the
general public and political leaders. Called the Bosque Biological
Management Plan, it outlined Whitney's mission: Convince all the
players to work together to give the Rio room to be a river
"I knew it was serious," recalls Whitney.
"But I thought we had a plan and people were committed."
It didn't take long for Whitney to figure out
that there was a lot about this new outfit he hadn't been
New Mexico water users had signed onto
river restoration when relatively high rainfall was keeping water
in the river, and Albuquerque thought it had a nearly endless
supply of groundwater (HCN, 12/26/94). But by 1994, Albuquerque,
the state's largest city, was eyeing the Rio to satisfy booming
growth. People began tripping over each other to get off the
Then, the day before Whitney
arrived in Albuquerque, the Fish and Wildlife Service put the
three-inch-long Rio Grande silvery minnow on the endangered species
list. The minnow, once common throughout the Rio Grande and its
tributaries, was now confined to 5 percent of its former habitat -
all within the middle Rio Grande. Restoration was no longer
voluntary; the hammer of the law now hung over the
Over the course of a year, Whitney met
with all the water interests. Albuquerque agreed to lease the
Bureau of Reclamation up to 30,000 acre-feet of water it had stored
in Abiquin Reservoir. This was "non-native" water that was pumped
into the Rio Grande from the Colorado River drainage through the
San Juan-Chama project. But the city didn't have the ability to use
it yet, so it could be left in the river.
a Band-Aid, but it put the state's legion of water lawyers at ease,
and bought Whitney time to find a long-term
Then one Friday afternoon in April,
1996, he got some very bad news. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy
District had quietly diverted the entire river into its ditches at
the San Acacia Diversion Dam outside of Socorro, and minnows were
"We went down to the river Saturday
morning," says Whitney, "and discovered a dry river with pools
rapidly drying, and dead minnows." When the body count came in,
10,000 minnows were dead, 40 percent of the remaining
"It was going to be a long summer,"
Whitney remembers. "The worst-case scenario had arrived."
Greens force the
Whitney tried to regroup. Bosque del Apache
wildlife refuge kept water in the river for the first month by
giving up 3,000 acre-feet, one quarter of its annual water
appropriation. Thunderstorms and dam releases got them through the
rest of the summer. "We pieced it together," he
Over the next two years, the Bureau of
Reclamation leased water for the river - mostly from Albuquerque.
The conservancy district pitched in 2,700 acre-feet in 1997, but
never took responsibility for killing the
Meanwhile, Jeff Whitney canvassed for
consensus. In the winter of 1996, Whitney and Gary Rowe, a staffer
with the Bureau of Reclamation, called the federal agencies, the
state, Albuquerque and the conservancy district together. The
result was a report known as the "white paper" that laid out a plan
to keep water in the river for the minnow.
guts of the white paper called for federal agencies to buy water
rights for river flows. During dry years, Albuquerque would pump
groundwater, leaving more in the river for fish and farmers. The
conservancy district, in turn, would save water by lining canals
and developing more efficient irrigation systems. Upstream
reservoirs controlled by the federal government would be used to
store water during wet years to boost river flows during dry ones.
And the state would begin the long-overdue process of measuring
diversions from the river and adjudicating water rights, so that
users would have certainty.
The white paper won
praise from some conservationists, but the drying of the river the
previous spring had galvanized most greens. Already seven of the
Rio's native fish species were extirpated or extinct. The minnow
was one of nine remaining species, but the environmentalists feared
it wouldn't be around for long without more protection. In April of
1997, Forest Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife sued the Interior
Department. Fish and Wildlife had put the minnow on the endangered
species list in 1994, but missed its 1996 deadline for designating
The lawsuit was aimed at the
heart of the issue. Some biologists believed that the only way to
protect the minnow was to restore the middle Rio Grande. That would
mean keeping water in the river year-round, and allowing it to wash
over its banks in spring and meander across its
The lawsuit also changed the debate.
From that point on, it would be a game of legal strong-arming to
force agencies mired in the past to stay at the
"Until you force the issue and create a
crisis," said John Horning of the Forest Guardians, "we don't deal
with the problems."
In October of 1997, Judge
John Conway ruled that Interior had violated the Endangered Species
Act, but he didn't give the agency a new deadline for critical
habitat. Forest Guardians and Defenders appealed, and in December
1998, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ordered Fish and
Wildlife to designate habitat by the end of June
Water users dug in their heels further and
in May, Sen. Pete Domenici tried to attach a rider to an emergency
spending bill that would have postponed all critical habitat
designations until Oct. 1.
Sam Hitt of Forest
Guardians and a pack of volunteers took cell phones to natural food
stores in Albuquerque and asked shoppers, "Do you want to talk to
Pete Domenici?" They tied up his phone lines for two days.
Defenders of Wildlife had members send megabytes of e-mail messages
to the senator.
"This is not about the minnow.
This is about the Rio Grande, the heart of New Mexico," said Hitt.
"We're talking about a major ecological catastrophe. The red light
on the dashboard is flashing away. People like Domenici want to
speed up. We should be hitting the brakes."
days after Domenici introduced the rider, he abandoned
On June 29, the day before Fish and Wildlife
announced its findings on critical habitat, state Water Engineer
Tom Turney was anxious. Before the silvery minnow, Turney had
exercised near-total control over the river, mainly on behalf of
irrigators. Now, new players were coming to the table. "Tomorrow is
the magic day," he said. "It's going to be devastating to New
No one wants the
bill for the minnow
The next morning, Turney's
fears came true. Fish and Wildlife designated the entire 163-mile
stretch of the middle Rio Grande, from Cochiti to Elephant Butte,
as critical minnow habitat. The agency did not specify how much
water would be needed, but it did say that to save the minnow, the
reach would have to run as a continuous river, not exist as
Before the week was over, the
conservancy district and the state were suing the Fish and Wildlife
Service, demanding a retraction of the critical habitat until the
agency had studied its economic impacts.
need water' - that's not enough of an answer," said district
biologist Sterling Grogan. "The Rio Grande has been dry as a bone
for months at a time since the 1890s. The minnow has developed
survival strategies that have allowed it to survive periodic drying
of the river channel."
The district estimated
that it would take up to 150,000 acre-feet per year to meet Fish
and Wildlife's demands. "All of the water users in the middle Rio
Grande would be without water in a dry year," said Grogan. "That
includes the city of Albuquerque, the pueblos, farmers and the
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge."
Turney predicted that the effort would cost farmers $200 million to
"The water buffaloes are scared to
death of the consequences of keeping water in this river," said Sam
Hitt. "It's totally overblown. They're like gigantic elephants
dancing around a little mouse."
sounded harried. "They (the state and conservancy district) think
it requires a full, bank-to-bank river year-round," he said. "We're
talking about just enough water to keep a trickle going at the
He said it would take 50,000
acre-feet in a dry year, one third of the conservancy district's
estimate. That water could be found relatively painlessly, he said,
by following the recommendations laid out three years earlier in
the white paper. The 1938 Rio Grande Compact, he said, required New
Mexico to deliver 60-90 percent of the Rio Grande's water to Texas
and Mexico each year. Why not release that water to meet the needs
of the minnow, and meet both
Progress might be easier, Whitney
added, if everyone at the bargaining table weren't suing each
other. "Nobody sees the irony. Nobody sees the psychosis."
But people were still hoping someone else would
pick up the tab for the minnow, and all eyes turned to Albuquerque
Mayor Jim Baca, an outspoken conservationist, and former head of
both the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Middle Rio
Grande Conservancy District. It was Baca's San Juan-Chama water
that had kept the river wet for three years. If he would agree to
keep leasing water, crisis could be put off a little
Baca was in a tight spot. To wean itself
from its dwindling groundwater, and prepare for a projected 650,000
people by the year 2050, the city was pouring $180 million into a
river water-treatment plant. On Sept. 1, Albuquerque took the
offensive. It announced it would stop leasing water and sued
Interior, claiming the San Juan-Chama water stored in Heron
reservoir, near Tierra Amarilla was the city's savings account for
dry years and could not be used for the
The city said it was trying to force the
conservancy district to compromise. "Some people think Albuquerque
should be the savior of the river. In fact, we've been the savior
for years. We've kept the minnow alive," said Jim Baca, adding that
the city has reduced per capita water use by 23 percent in five
years. "My premise is, Albuquerque has done its part, where is
everybody else? The pueblos, the acequias, the conservancy district
need to step up to the plate."
Others said Baca
was just kowtowing to thirsty developers, who in 1997 contributed
70-89 percent of the city council's campaign money, according to a
local watchdog group, the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition.
"In Albuquerque, the political power is held by developers,"
explains Pilar river guide and activist Steve Harris, "and nobody
wants to piss in their Post Toasties."
Anyone care to
The legal struggle over the middle Rio
Grande could take years, even lifetimes, to play out, but Jeff
Whitney and others still have hopes of finding a solution in real
Back in April of 1998, a group of
conservationists wrote a response to the white paper. The authors
included Steve Harris, head of the consensus-minded group Rio
Grande Restoration, attorney Laird Lucas with the Land and Water
Fund of the Rockies, Sue George, New Mexico representative for
Defenders of Wildlife, and University of New Mexico law professor
Denise Fort, who chaired the Western Water Policy Review Commission
Their "green paper" echoed the
recommendations of the white paper, but it also had a structural
component. It proposed moving back levees to allow spring floods to
cover the floodplain and removing the Low-Flow Conveyance Channel,
a ditch parallel to the river that drains up to two-thirds of its
water between San Acacia and Elephant Butte. And just as others
want to tear out dams to protect salmon in the Northwest, the paper
proposed removing diversion dams on the Rio Grande that block the
silvery minnow from migrating upstream.
1998, a few months after the paper was released, the Bureau of
Reclamation invited the authors of both the green and white papers
to a retreat in Santa Fe. For the first time, a whole spread of
conservationists as well as Pueblo and acequia representatives sat
at the table with the region's water managers. "It was historic,"
says Steve Harris.
The group, now called the
"Green and White Paper Group," meets once a month, and has had some
success. A subset of the group has been trying to hammer out a
Habitat Conservation Plan or some other compromise modeled on the
Platte or Lower Colorado River agreements (HCN,
The lawsuits have tested the group's
resilience, says Steve Harris, but so far, "everybody's still here.
It's slow and painful, but the value is pulling the players
together, so we all know the same things. I think everybody's
positions are known; God knows, at this point they're practically
locked in concrete."
Exactly, says Santa Fe
Public Utilities Department Director Mike Hammon. Most of the
players have their backs against the wall and refuse to
Hammon is one of the few to step out onto
the floor. Like Albuquerque, Santa Fe is fixing to pump San
Juan-Chama water - a relatively small 5,600 acre feet each year -
out of the Rio Grande. But Hammon has offered to pump more ground
water during dry years, and leave some of his imported water in the
"If all the cities are doing the same
thing, you've got some water to work with," he says. "But the
(legal) hammers being held over everybody's heads make people
nervous to be first. I'm a small fish, so I can take a step out
more easily than an Albuquerque."
restore the river without the biggest player on the reach, the
conservancy district, which shies away from talk of river
restoration. The district has instead proposed trucking minnows
around diversion dams to wet spots upstream. "Sometimes it's wise
to move the water where the minnows are. Sometimes it's wise to
move the minnows where the water is," says District Manager Subhis
Shah. "There's no use in looking for the minnows where we know the
river is going to dry up."
Talk like this just
delays dealing with the real issue, the river, says Jeff Whitney.
"It's total denial," he says. "They're hoping against hope that
they'll wake up from this bad dream and be able to continue to do
things as they've always done."
Good news and
It's late September, and Whitney is
moving out of his office, cleaning out filing cabinets and purging
his e-mail account. He's on his way to yet another new outfit
across town - this time working with an interagency group called
the Southwest Initiative, doing region-wide planning. Rumor has it
that Whitney was "bumped upstairs' for taking too strong a stance
on river restoration. He denies this, saying he's done his part and
it's time to move on.
As Whitney leaves, the news
on the river is mixed. This fall, Pete Domenici convinced Congress
to appropriate $2 million to help fund silvery minnow recovery. In
Washington, the Interior Department is watching the Rio Grande more
closely than ever, and more money may be on the
Late snows and summer rain kept the river
wet this year, but they also gave people a false sense of security.
"There's enough water in the system, and I'm afraid people are just
going to coast," says Whitney. "There's every opportunity to turn
things around, but there needs to be a larger will."
The extra water also seems to have washed
silvery minnows and their progeny downstream of San Acacia
Diversion Dam. A recent survey found that 90 percent of the minnows
are now trapped in the section of the river that dried up in 1996.
One dry year could wipe out the minnow
The result could be another lawsuit.
A coalition of environmental groups represented by the Land and
Water Fund is considering filing suit. "We're having these great
meetings and talking about long-term solutions," says Sue George
with Defenders of Wildlife. "But it's not happening fast enough.
We've got to get in there with some litigation and light some
The lawsuit also targets irrigators. The
conservancy district, it says, does not have the water rights it
claims. The district signed them over to the Bureau of Reclamation
in the 1940s, when the federal government bailed out the nearly
bankrupt agency. "We're not trying to take any water rights away
from anyone. We're saying the federal government owns this water,
and has the responsibility to keep some of it in the river," says
lead attorney Laird Lucas. "This is the dirty hidden secret in New
Mexico water law that nobody wants to talk about."
Ironically, environmentalists and the
conservancy district are allies on another legal front. Both are
likely to intervene in Albuquerque's lawsuit claiming ownership of
San Juan-Chama water in Heron Reservoir. Both groups argue that
Interior, not Albuquerque, owns the water in Heron, and is
obligated to use it to protect the minnow.
by far the strangest situation I've ever been in. It's out of some
of the weirdest science fiction," says Jeff Whitney. "I've taken a
very long, hard, focused look at this, and I believe that everyone
can get what they require if people stay flexible. We're not on the
road to nowhere."
"One thing's for sure," he
adds, "2000 is going to be a very exciting year on the Rio Grande."
Greg Hanscom is an HCN
* Jennifer Fowler-Propst with the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at 505/346-2525;
Steve Hansen with the Bureau of Reclamation at
* State Engineer Tom Turney at
* Sam Hitt with Forest Guardians at
* Steve Harris with Rio Grande
Restoration at 505/751-1269;
* John Stomp,
Albuquerque water engineer at 505/768-3631;
Subhis Shah with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District at