As the battle for scarce Rio Grande water pits central New Mexico farmers against the three-inch silvery minnow (HCN, 8/28/00: Shaky truce on the Rio Grande), a controversial federal-state agreement is aiming to ensure the survival of both species.
Under the three-year plan, signed June 29, the state will sell 100,000 acre-feet of water to the federal government. Each year, some of the water will be flushed down the Rio Grande to protect minnow habitat south of Socorro.
The agreement protects farmers and other water users from the sanctions of the Endangered Species Act; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the agreement is sufficient to protect the minnow and that the farmers' water diversion "will not decimate the species," says agency staffer Elizabeth Slown. The opinion also allows for the accidental death of 100,000 fish as a result of scientific or recovery work each year.
"It's the best possible solution for the fish and the farmers," says Joyce Lincoln, spokeswoman for state Attorney General Patricia Madrid.
But the federal and state governments, which expected that the agreement would free them from a 1999 lawsuit filed by environmentalists, were sorely disappointed on July 2, when Chief U.S. District Judge James A. Parker declined to throw out the lawsuit. The groups argue that the governments are not doing enough to protect the minnow. "The fish is hanging on by a thread," says Richard Barish of the Sierra Club. "And 30,000 acre-feet (per year) is not enough to keep the Rio Grande wet."
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