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Agreement Creates New Hope and Mechanisms to Restore Rio Grande

February 25, 2005
Editorial - Letty Belin, attorney
In This Release
Rivers, Wildlife  
This week, environmental groups and the City of Albuquerque entered into an historic settlement agreement in the lawsuit over the Rio Grande and the silvery minnow. The two sides joined forces to take an important step towards both ensuring that the Rio Grande continues to survive and flow, and providing more certainty for Albuquerque’s future water supply. The agreement demonstrates how the Endangered Species Act can catalyze diverse interests to come together to devise creative solutions that benefit everyone.

For the better part of the last ten years, New Mexicans have been at war over the future of the Rio Grande. Environmental groups have been fighting to ensure that the Rio Grande would have a legal right to its own water adequate to sustain both people and the many other species that depend on this once Great River. Cities have been battling for security in their future water supplies. Farmers have sought to continue their age-old way of life. The Rio Grande is the life line of New Mexico, and all of us are counting on the river to sustain our future. But a look at the Rio Grande, and its often dry bed, reminds us that this river cannot do everything we are asking of it.

Mother Nature has not been especially kind during this time – most of the years since 1996 have been drought years. Hydrologists tell us that the years from 1996 to 2003 have been the driest time in this region since we began keeping water records. Perhaps that is good – because when it rains and snows and the Rio Grande flows, we all close our eyes to the river’s problems, and ignore the crisis that awaits us.

Fueled by six years of litigation, many steps have been taken towards restoring the river and the Rio Grande silvery minnow. Salt cedars have been removed and replaced by cottonwoods and willows in some places. Both city dwellers and farmers have learned to use water more efficiently, and federal management of the river is now far more attuned to sustaining the river’s life than ever before. The silvery minnow – a good indicator of the river’s health – is not (yet) extinct.

The present settlement, if ratified by the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, would put an end to the longstanding court battle between environmental groups and Albuquerque. The agreement would:

(1) Commit $250,000 from the City, the Authority, and the environmental groups towards establishing a pilot program for leasing agricultural water for the river during dry periods;

(2) Commit 30,000 acre-feet of City-owned space in Abiquiu Reservoir to an environmental water pool to hold water needed to sustain the river, the bosque, and endangered species;

(3) Establish a program that gives Albuquerque residents the opportunity, through their water bills, to make a $1/month contribution towards purchasing water for the environmental water pool

The Agreement is innovative: nothing like it has ever been done in New Mexico or anywhere else in the west.

Much more will need to be done before we can be assured that the Rio Grande will continue to be a living, flowing river. It is our hope that federal and state water managers, farmers, the Middle Rio Grande Water Conservancy District, and other stakeholders step in to breathe life into the Agreement work and agree to lease and sell water that will establish a permanent environmental water pool to sustain the river through dry times. And we need to continue to find ways to use water more efficiently in our homes and on our farms to make sure that there is enough water to meet the needs of all New Mexicans. Also, this agreement does not address the serious ecological problems the river faces in southern New Mexico. But it is an important step forward.

The Agreement, and the work being done by the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program, are two important collaborative building blocks for restoring the Middle Rio Grande and the bosque.

We should remember that this collaboration has come about only because of the Endangered Species Act. That Act has forced us all to work to sustain the middle Rio Grande. Were it not for that Act, and for the litigation that unfortunately was needed to enforce it, little would have been done to restore this reach of the river and its flows, and the silvery minnow would surely be extinct by now.

Let us be thankful that the Endangered Species Act and the recent drought have forced us to come to grips with our future, our river, and ourselves. And let us redouble our efforts to find more collaborative solutions to these difficult problems.