The Latest: Rio Grande water

A shortfall in water deliveries may lead to more fighting.

  • Low water levels at Heron Lake, the main reservoir of the San Juan-Chama Project.

    Michael Aune

After the Rio Grande silvery minnow made the endangered species list in 1994, battles over the river’s water intensified—complicated by the San Juan-Chama project, which diverts San Juan River water into the Chama, a Rio Grande tributary. Environmentalists won a lawsuit allowing the Bureau of Reclamation to use San Juan-Chama water to keep the river wet for the minnow, but in 2003, Congress barred the agency from using that water for endangered species (“Truce remains elusive in Rio Grande water fight,” HCN, 8/4/03). Since then, the feds, cities, and farmers have tried to figure out ways to share the water, when conditions allow.     

In January, the San Juan-Chama project fell short for the first time in its 40-year history. The 10,000 acre-foot shortfall was due to a series of extremely dry years. Although local reservoirs can make up for this year’s shortage, further drought may deplete them, leaving no water available for the tiny fish, or for farmers. It’s a reminder that climate change may disrupt once-dependable supplies — and exacerbate fights over the Rio Grande’s water.

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