So-called 'peace treaty' won't save the Rio Grande

  • Lisa Robert

  • Rio Grande Cafe

    John Trever

HCN’s story, "Peace breaks out on the Rio Grande," suggests that the agreement between environmentalists and Albuquerque marked an end to wrangling over water in the Middle Rio Grande (HCN, 3/21/05: Peace breaks out on the Rio Grande). Don’t we wish.

For reasons best understood by the city of Albuquerque, two separate legal proceedings are being treated as though they were one. The first is the five-year-old lawsuit filed by environmental groups to force the Bureau of Reclamation to ante up water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. That suit was joined by the state of New Mexico, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, and the city of Albuquerque, all of which hoped to prevent water from the federal San Juan-Chama Diversion Project from being commandeered for endangered species. Environmentalists settled that suit in February, dropping their claims in return for, among other things, 30,000 acre-feet of storage space in Abiquiu Reservoir, where they hope to create a conservation pool to help keep the river wet during dry times.

What the newspaper reports all missed (and city spokesmen certainly didn’t volunteer) is that another, far more germane legal issue must be resolved before there can ever be "peace" on the Rio Grande: Albuquerque’s drinking-water project permit. Granted last year by the state engineer, it is being appealed in district court by a coalition of agricultural and environmental groups who recognize it as the most important water case in the state’s history.

If the permit stands, it will allow Albuquerque to remove and entirely consume 48,200 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water from the Rio Grande each year. San Juan-Chama water is not native to the Rio Grande Basin. It is New Mexico’s share of the Colorado River, which the Bureau of Reclamation diverts from the other side of the Continental Divide and reroutes through a series of tunnels into the Rio Grande. The city of Albuquerque, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and other entities have contracts for specific amounts of this water, and according to the state engineer, an average of 109,000 acre-feet has been imported annually since 1972.

Albuquerque originally purchased San Juan-Chama water to "offset" municipal pumping from the aquifer. Rio Grande surface flows and groundwater are connected, and sustained pumping would eventually suck water from the river. Since those effects are delayed, sometimes for years, San Juan-Chama water initially provided a surplus to the system. Now, however, 30 years of groundwater withdrawals are beginning to be felt. In some areas, Albuquerque’s water table has dropped more than 120 feet, and recent studies indicate that groundwater pumping in the basin is bleeding 70,000 acre-feet from the river each year, in spite of transfusions from the San Juan-Chama Project.

Nonetheless, Albuquerque has changed its tack, and now wants to pull its full allotment of imported San Juan-Chama water out of the Rio Grande for direct use and continued growth. But in granting the city’s permit, the state engineer denied reality: The Rio Grande’s "constituents" have become dependent upon that water, including the owners of thousands of permitted domestic wells, the woodlands along the river, and yes, the endangered silvery minnow. Albuquerque is a test case wherein urban growth is challenging every other water user in the river system.

When they settled their minnow lawsuit in exchange for reservoir space, environmentalists made a foolish deal. Convinced that "profligate agriculture" could yield enough water for minnows and people both, they, like the developers and politicians, ignored the fact that farms are the cornerstone of the entire system. Agriculture isn’t using 80 percent of the available surface water, as environmentalists often claim. Instead, it is doing the job that the river and its floodplain once did: nurturing the ecosystem and re-supplying the aquifer on which the city depends. Studies show that one-half of the aquifer recharge that occurs in the Albuquerque basin is due to seepage from Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District ditches and flood-irrigated fields. As urban growth consumes greater and greater amounts of groundwater, the river, by way of the conservancy’s irrigation and drainage system, has been working like mad to make up for it.

Saddest of all, by agreeing to exempt San Juan-Chama water from endangered species use, and by waiving the right to protest its extraction from the river, those who settled the minnow suit placed the burden of meeting the region’s water deficit entirely on farmers in the middle valley. The only place water can come from now to save silvery minnows or counteract municipal irresponsibility is from the over-committed Rio Grande, and from historically irrigated lands that are already doing double and triple duty to sustain the ecosystem.

In their pursuit of agricultural water to fill an empty conservation pool, the "environmentalists" neglected one crucial thing: When you take the water off the farmland, recharge ceases, wildlife habitat is lost to development, and the debt to the aquifer gets harder and harder to reconcile.

The author lives in Tomé, New Mexico, where she raises pheasants, larks, kestrels and alfalfa.