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.
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