Shaky truce on the Rio Grande

Amid a political dust storm, an agreement keeps endangered fish alive

 

As if the summer hadn't been tough enough on New Mexico - temperatures soared, forests burned and the monsoons were a no-show - an already tense situation on the middle Rio Grande heated up in late July.

Earlier in the month, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation warned that the river would likely run dry south of the San Acacia diversion dam outside of Socorro, N.M., the last of five dams that pull water from the Middle Rio Grande for farmers. Biologists say up to 90 percent of the surviving population of endangered silvery minnows live below the dam, and if the river dried, the fish could go extinct (HCN, 10/11/99: A tiny fish cracks New Mexico's water establishment).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials were watching the river like hawks. A minnow-rescue team made spot checks on the ground while a small airplane scanned the river from above. Jude Smith, the agency's silvery minnow rescue coordinator, watched flow gauges on the Web for signs of a drying river, ready to swoop in to save minnows stranded in pools in the riverbed.

In the searing New Mexico heat, a pool the size of a quarter of a football field and a meter deep can disappear in two short days, Smith says. In the meantime, minnows can run out of oxygen or fall prey to bass, great blue herons or bobcats.

Late in the day, Smith got the signal to mobilize. The river was "intermittent." Smith and his team spent the next two and a half days buzzing up the drying riverbed on ATV's, netting stranded minnows and putting them into coolers, then transporting them to a water truck.

Then came a call from Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters. A group of angry farmers had seized control of the San Acacia diversion dam, and refused to allow officials to send more water to the minnows.

"They told us to get off the river and get back to the office," says Smith. "We were warned of possible violence."

The protest ended quietly, and crews were able to return to work the following day. One by one, they managed to save 65 of the fish and transplant them upstream. But what they really needed was more water in the river. In an air-conditioned conference room at the federal district court in Albuquerque, another kind of emergency crew was trying to make that happen.

A stopgap agreement

The group, composed of attorneys representing the federal government, the city of Albuquerque, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and environmentalists, had gathered under the order of U.S. District Judge James Parker. Its mission was to work out a solution to a lawsuit from environmentalists aimed at protecting the silvery minnow and the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

On August 2, after 10 long days of negotiation, they emerged with a short-term solution. Both Albuquerque and the conservancy district agreed to sell the federal government water they had stored in reservoirs upstream. Using roughly 85,000 acre-feet of water from these savings accounts, the group would keep the river wet at least through the end of the irrigation season, Oct. 31.

Farmers would benefit, too. The Bureau of Reclamation would buy 36,000 acre-feet of water for the conservancy district to extend an otherwise short irrigation season and help the minnow's water ride downstream.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed" that the water will be enough, says Letty Belin, an attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. But she adds that using water from savings this year will make similar solutions difficult down the road, unless the conservancy district, which uses 90 percent of the water on the middle Rio Grande, gets serious about water conservation.

In early July, the Interior Department had threatened to take control of the district's dams if it diverted too much water from the river. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt backed down when New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici attached a rider to a spending bill that would have prohibited Interior from spending any money on emergency measures aimed at saving the minnow. Domenici also threatened to pull almost $17 million in federal funding for habitat and flow projects on the middle Rio Grande.

Following the agreement, Judge Parker also asked the environmental plaintiffs to propose a long-term solution which will be debated in court in mid-September.

"So far, it's been file a lawsuit and then see what happens," says Steve Harris with Rio Grande Restoration, a consensus-minded conservation group that has not been involved in the litigation. "We've learned that (a lawsuit) can be a good catalyst, but for the first time, environmentalists are going to have to sit their butts down in some chairs and close the deals."

Praying for rain

No one denies that the future for the minnow is uncertain, but conservancy district spokesman Sterling Grogan insists that the minnow has lived through numerous dry spells in the past. "It's not clear how the minnow has survived extensive drying of the river throughout the 20th century," he says.

Fish and Wildlife's Jude Smith says Grogan is off the mark. The minnow once lived in the Rio Grande from Espaûola to the Gulf of Mexico as well as in much of the Pecos River. When one section of the river went dry, he says, minnows found water elsewhere. "It's doubtful that losing 10 miles of habitat (then) was as detrimental as losing two miles (today)."

Two other similar species of fish, the Rio Grande bluntnose shiner and the phantom shiner have already gone extinct, he says. Two others, the Rio Grande shiner and the speckled chub, have been extirpated from the middle Rio Grande. Studies suggest that the culprits are dams and irrigation diversions.

"When species are going extinct, you know something is wrong with that river," says Smith. "The silvery minnow is the last hanger-onner."

Meanwhile, the summer monsoons have yet to materialize, says Joy Nicholopoulos, supervisor of the Service's New Mexico Ecological Services Office. "If we run out of water, I hate to say it, but all bets are off."

Greg Hanscom is an associate editor of High Country News.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Jude Smith with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 505/346-2525, ext. 130;
  • Sterling Grogan with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, 505/247-0235;
  • Letty Belin with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, 505/983-8936.
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