Water district has identity crisis

  • San Acadia diversion dam

    Michael P. Berman photo

The largest irrigation district on the Rio Grande has received some bone-shaking news: The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, formerly thought to be an arm of the state, is a federal agency.

In 1951, the Bureau of Reclamation bailed out the nearly bankrupt district, spending millions to renovate dams and irrigation ditches. At the same time, the district signed its facilities over to the Bureau, and now, "the District operates the "transferred works' as the United States' agent," according to a July 6 letter from the bureau to district chief Subhas Shah.

Federal agencies are bound by the Endangered Species Act, so the new status may force the district to leave more water in the Rio Grande to protect the endangered silvery minnow (HCN, 10/11/99: A tiny fish cracks New Mexico's water establishment). The Bureau says unless farmers leave more water in the river, the minnow's habitat could dry out as soon as July 24.

The prospect infuriates Shah. "Your letter has done immeasurable damage to the middle Rio Grande Valley," Shah replied to the Bureau's Michael Gabaldon. The district predicts that if it complies with the new rule, its irrigation ditches will run dry sometime in August.

Sen. Pete Domenici attached a rider to a spending bill that would prevent federal agencies from taking emergency measures to protect the fish. But the district isn't getting any sympathy from John Horning of the Forest Guardians. His group and several others published a report this spring blasting the district for wasting water. In 1998, according to the report, the district diverted almost three times more water than necessary from the river.

Says Horning, "If the Rio Grande goes dry again, this could be lights out for the silvery minnow."

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