Truce remains elusive in Rio Grande water fight

New Mexico’s biggest river dries up as battle rages in courts and Congress

  • Gary Glasgow

Water politics are notoriously ugly in the West, but on the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico, the situation resembles a bar full of drunks brawling over the last swig of whiskey. Not only are there scores of interests competing for water — notably, two endangered species, one major city and 12,000 farmers — but there are two types of water to fight over.

There’s the “native” water, which flows naturally into the river. Then there’s water originally from the San Juan River, which has been pumped into the Rio Chama — a tributary of the Rio Grande — by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In Albuquerque, where suburbs have spun out across the valley and off into the desert, developers are counting on that San Juan-Chama water, and politicians have argued that it should not be used to create habitat for endangered species.

Last fall, however, Chief U.S. District Judge James A. Parker sided with environmentalists, who had sued to keep water in the Rio Grande: He ruled that the Bureau could require farmers to give up native water, and also require Albuquerque to give up its San Juan-Chama water, to protect the endangered silvery minnow (HCN, 10/14/02: Albuquerque is dragged into Rio Grande fight).

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez, D, denounced Parker’s decision, saying it “takes water from the mouths of the city’s children.” The U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, appealed the decision, arguing that it could not violate water contracts to bail out endangered species.

But in June, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Parker’s decision. Politicians across the state attacked the appeals court decision. Gov. Bill Richardson, D, flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and vowed to fight the decision all the way to the Supreme Court (HCN, 4/28/03: Indian Power).

One week after the appeals court decision, New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, R, blamed “federal bureaucrats” for inflicting “devastating consequences” on farmers — from the Rio Grande to the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border — by deciding that “a fly, fish, or rodent” needs water.

With support from the state’s other senator, Jeff Bingaman, D, Domenici added language to an energy and water spending bill barring the Bureau from using San Juan-Chama water for endangered species. The “rider” also establishes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s current biological opinion as the final word on the minnow’s recovery. That biological opinion, rewritten last fall, says the Bureau only needs to keep the river flowing until June 15 each year (HCN, 6/23/03: Are minnow scientists still under the gun?).

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., then introduced the House version of the rider, and after five minutes of debate, it passed. President Bush will sign it into law this summer.

“We’ve been working on this for seven years. And in five minutes, the House passed the amendment to exempt San Juan-Chama water and to allow the river to go dry for 100 miles,” says John Horning, executive director of Forest Guardians. “This does not speak highly of the democratic process, to say the least.”

Gov. Richardson, who moonlights as an international diplomat, has now revealed he organized closed-door negotiations to resolve the standoff over the minnow. Although calls to his office were not returned, he told the Albuquerque Journal that “all of us … are weary of the endless litigation.”

But as of late July, about 80 miles of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque have already run dry, and federal biologists are working 12-hour shifts, scooping minnows from puddles in the drying riverbed, then rereleasing them into the river in Albuquerque.

While Mayor Chavez is celebrating the city’s victory in Congress, and farmers are getting their full allotments of water, two recent reports have given both parties black eyes. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has found that the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District uses at least twice as much water per acre as any other irrigation district in the state; and an internal city audit found that Albuquerque lost 11.6 percent — or 4.4 billion gallons — of the groundwater it pumped last year, thanks mostly to leaky pipes.

“The public keeps hearing that it’s fish vs. farmers; that’s not at all the case,” says Jim Brooks, with New Mexico’s Fishery Resources Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “It wouldn’t mean taking water away from the mouths of babies. It just means we need to conserve water.”

The author is an HCN assistant editor. This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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