Albuquerque is dragged into Rio Grande fight

Mayor says judge stole water from the silvery minnow

  • THIRSTY 'BURBS: As Albuquerque booms, the Rio Grande's native fish are surviving from court decision to court decision

    Michael Berman photo

ALBUQUERQUE, N. M. — In mid-September, a federal judge delivered a body blow to the sprawling city of Albuquerque. At the end of a brutally dry summer in the Southwest, U.S. District Judge James Parker ruled that city water in northern New Mexico reservoirs must be released into the Rio Grande to save the three-and-a-half-inch-long endangered silvery minnow. While farmers have been ordered to leave water in the river for minnows in the past, this marks the first time Albuquerque has been dragged directly into the fray (HCN, 7/08/02: Southwest drought desiccates fish before farmers).

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez denounced the decision as water "theft" that threatens the city's planned Rio Grande drinking-water project. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson threatened to call in a "God Squad" — a special committee that can grant exemptions to the Endangered Species Act. State and city lawyers filed appeals, and at least five other Western states, facing similar fights over endangered species, said they would join the fight.

But for the five environmental groups that filed the original minnow lawsuit nearly three years ago, the judge's decision was a "wake-up call" they hope will jolt the city into modifying wasteful water habits.

"We can either figure this out while we have a river, or we can wait until we've destroyed it," says Letty Belin, a Santa Fe-based attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "When Albuquerque's whole program is to grow, grow, grow and gobble up more water, you're going to continue to have these crises."

Former Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, now a consultant for several environmental groups, agrees. "Albuquerque and the other users are going to have to grow differently," he says, "and we have to get serious about fixing this river system and stop wasting water on sprawl development."

City turns to the river

If anything, the tremendous growth in the Rio Grande Valley is a sign that river advocates have a tough battle ahead of them.

In 30 years, Albuquerque's population has nearly doubled to more than 700,000. Most of the new arrivals have settled on the city's sprawling west side, right up against Petroglyph National Monument, where developers are working on a controversial road intended to relieve traffic in nearby subdivisions (HCN, 4/1/02: A road through a national monument?). The area is also the site of a planned commuter-jet factory that could employ up to 2,000 people.

During his four-year term as mayor, Baca tried to deal with growth by focusing attention on the city's decaying downtown. But even after an ambitious downtown renovation project that has created new housing and refurbished businesses, the push toward the fringes continues: The nonprofit 1,000 Friends of New Mexico estimates that suburban growth still accounts for 90 percent of new building permits in Albuquerque.

Suburban growth, with its parks and lawns, requires water. And since the early 1990s, when Albuquerque discovered that it was tapping out its groundwater, the city has turned to the Rio Grande. It bought into the San Juan-Chama diversion project, which takes Colorado River Basin water across the continental divide from the San Juan River, storing it in reservoirs on the Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. A $170 million water treatment plant, projected to be completed by 2005, will allow urbanites to drink this water for the first time.

These plans were thrown into question when Judge Parker ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to release San Juan-Chama water to keep the Rio Grande from running dry and to balance the needs of the city with the silvery minnow.

"That's not a balance," says Mayor Chavez. "It's absolutely the needs of the fish that prevail." The environmental groups, "need to back off," he adds, "because they're going to lose this one. Human beings are going to prevail."

An unwieldy challenge

As mayor, Baca fought hard to hang on to the city's San Juan-Chama water, arguing that native Rio Grande water - most of which is used by farmers - should be used to save the minnow, not imported San Juan River water. Still, he says, rather than slinging political rhetoric at environmentalists, Albuquerque needs to ponder what it will mean if the Rio Grande runs dry and the silvery minnow dies off. "What's the next species to go?" Baca asks. "The cottonwoods?"

Judge Parker's decision will likely be overturned on appeal, Baca says, because the San Juan-Chama water is designated for city use, not for endangered species. Nonetheless, the city and state need to "do something realistic in state land-use planning," he says. The Albuquerque City Council recently adopted a "planned growth strategy," but Baca says it falls short because it's mostly "sound-good stuff" without any enforcement teeth.

"It's a lot easier said than done," says Mayor Chavez, noting that sprawl is an unwieldy challenge. As for some planned-growth advocates, Chavez adds, "Their real agenda is no growth, and that isn't going to happen here."

The author writes from Socorro, New Mexico.

You can contact ...

  • Mayor Martin Chavez, 505/768-3000;
  • Gov. Gary Johnson, 505/827-3000
  • Or, see the Land and Water Fund Web site,
High Country News Classifieds