This winter, something strange happened on the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico, where farmers, cities, federal agencies and environmentalists have been battling for years. As record rainfall graced the river basin, a rare moment of peace also descended upon the river. At the end of February, environmentalists and the city of Albuquerque agreed to bury the legal hatchet over a dispute concerning endangered species — and to work together to keep water in the river.

Major water users on that stretch of the river include about 12,000 farmers, six tribes and a handful of cities. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District supplies farmers with about 350,000 acre-feet of the Rio Grande’s water each year, mostly for irrigating alfalfa. Cities such as Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos also have rights to water in the river, although some, like Albuquerque, have yet to draw on those rights.

Even so, over the last seven irrigation seasons the Rio Grande has been drying up in progressively longer reaches, for longer periods. Last summer, 68 miles of riverbed dried up south of Albuquerque, stranding the endangered silvery minnow at the brink of extinction (HCN, 8/2/04: An icon of the Rio Grande has all but vanished in the wild).

Throughout the drought, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District has refused to ante up any water for the minnow. In 2000, farmers even seized control of floodgates when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation tried to release irrigation water into the dry river channel. And although Albuquerque has leased water to the Bureau since 1996, once the city finishes its new drinking water project next year — and can finally use the 48,200 acre-feet of river water it has rights to — that water will no longer be available to the river during dry times.

Fearing for the fish, environmentalists sued the Bureau under the Endangered Species Act. Two years ago, a federal judge ruled that the Bureau has the right to withhold water from both farmers and cities to keep enough in the river for the minnow to survive. But Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and Gov. Bill Richardson, both Democrats, objected to using municipal water to protect endangered species. Within weeks, Sen. Pete Domenici, R, convinced Congress to reverse the court decision. Now, that municipal water has been placed forever off-limits for any endangered species (HCN, 8/4/03: Truce remains elusive in Rio Grande water fight).

Rather than addressing river flow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting endangered species, has scrambled to find other ways to help the minnow: Biologists release captive-bred fish into the river twice a year, and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and the City of Albuquerque built a 50,000-gallon artificial "refugium" for the minnow.

But now, an environmental coalition is trying a new strategy: In an attempt to reach the valley’s farmers, it is making nice with the city. The coalition — which includes Forest Guardians, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, New Mexico Audubon Council and the Southwest Environmental Center — has agreed to drop lawsuits challenging the city’s use of the water and its congressional exemption from the Endangered Species Act. In return, the city will use 30,000 acre-feet of its storage space in Abiquiu Reservoir on the Chama River as a "conservation pool" for dry times. Environmentalists have promised $25,000, and the city $225,000, toward a pilot program to lease water for the pool from farmers. And a new "check-off" option will allow Albuquerque water users to donate $1 to the conservation program in their monthly water bills.

"Our goal is to have farmers come to us and say, ‘Yes, I want to do this. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,’ " says John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians. "Our broader objective is if we can get farmers interested, that will force (the conservancy district’s) hand." By giving individual farmers a financial incentive to curb their water use so that they can lease water to the conservation pool, Horning hopes the district will rethink wasteful flood irrigation practices.

"We’re still shining the light on agriculture," says Horning. "But (the settlement) does it in a way that lets it be known that ag is also the solution."

The details of the agricultural leasing program are not final, and the check-off option won’t appear on water bills until at least 2006, after the city’s new drinking water facility is up and running. For now, environmentalists plan to talk with individual farmers about leasing possibilities, and they’re encouraging cities such as Santa Fe to start their own check-off programs.

Meanwhile, the conservancy district is studying the feasibility of agricultural leasing, says Subhas Shah, the district’s chief engineer. But, he says, if everyone is serious about protecting the silvery minnow, cities should be willing to cede their water, too: "Everyone should help."

The author is HCN assistant editor.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.