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Albuquerque, Environmental Groups End Minnow Water Fight

February 24, 2005
Tania Soussan and Leslie Linthicum, Albuquerque Tribune
In This Release
The city and the groups reached a deal to end the legal fight and signed a settlement agreement Wednesday on the banks of the Rio Grande.

Under the compromise, the city will set aside a portion of its storage space in Abiquiu Reservoir for water to be sent into theRio Grande to benefit wildlife downstream during dry times.

The city, the environmental groups and even Albuquerque residents- if they choose to add $1 to their monthly water bill- will chip in to buy or lease water to be kept in the Abiquiu bank for environmental uses.

The settlement, according to the parties, removes legal challenges to Albuquerque drinking water from the San Juan-Chama Water Project while banking water for fish, birds and trees when habitats are threatened by drought.

The settlement came after more than a year of negotiations between city officials and members of a host of environmental groups.

Those groups- the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the New Mexico Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Southwest Environmental Center and WildEarth Guardians- agree to drop their lawsuit over the city’s use of water from the San Juan-Chama project.

The other parties involved in the lawsuit still must agree to the dismissal, and if they do it will end one major part of a lawsuit that has been in federal court since 1999.

At the core of the lawsuit was the question of whether Albuquerque should have to share some of the water it bought from the San Juan River basin and imported into the Rio Grande.

The city bought the water to pump out for drinking water use. But environmentalists contended the city should have to keep some in the river during dry periods to protect the silvery minnow, the southwestern willow flycatcher or other endangered wildlife in the Rio Grande bosque.

“We’re laying down our swords in our many-year fight with the city,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians.

Horning said the compromise provides a place for a permanent pool of water for wildlife, courtesy of the city- an arrangement he and Mayor Martin Chávez said they believe is without precedent.

“Today,” the mayor said in announcing the settlement, “we have secured water for all time for the ecosystem.”

The city will set aside about 20 percent of its water-storage space in Abiquiu Reservoir and provide it, for free, for the wildlife water pool.

The agreement does not actually secure water; it commits $225,000 from the city and $25,000 from the environmental groups to buy or lease water to put in that environmental pool. The city and groups have set a goal to secure another $750,000 in state and federal funding to buy and lease water.

Some of that water could come from farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley under a pilot water leasing program that would allow farmers to be paid to allow their irrigation water to stay in the reservoir.

The water could come from farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District or neighboring pueblos, said John Stomp, the city’s water resources manager.

“Our hope,” Horning said, “is that we open the door to the agricultural community to see this as an opportunity to protect their interests, and at the same time we bring more water to the river.”

Charles Dumars, attorney for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, said the district would have liked the settlement to have also looked to conservation savings on the city’s part instead of looking just to farmers. And he said it remains to be seen how many takers the city will get when it looks to lease agricultural water.

“Are there sellers?” Dumars said. “Who knows?”

Estevan Lopez, director of the Interstate Stream Commission, said the water-leasing program would need state approval. And he said it was unclear Wednesday what effect the settlement would have on other parties to the lawsuit, including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the state of New Mexico and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We’re pleased to see resolution on some of these thorny issues,” Lopez said. “There’s still a lot of questions as to practically how this will all work out.”

Stomp said it would cost at least $3 million and take several years to buy or lease the 30,000 acre feet of water that will be set aside at Abiquiu.

Some of that money may come from Albuquerque and Bernalillo County water customers, who will have the opportunity to give $1 on top of their water bill to the purchase of water to stay in the river.

The $1 check-off won’t debut until after the city gets its San Juan-Chama water fully in use. The city plans to have the water ready for drinking by 2007.

The legal case is not completely over. Questions remain over management of Rio Grande water for endangered species and dams, canals and ditches used by conservancy district farmers.

Dumars said the conservancy district and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have asked U.S. District Court in Albuquerque to dismiss the pending lawsuit, but Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker has not ruled on their motions.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., praised the settlement as an example of how endangered species such as the minnow can be protected without crippling urban growth.

He noted that, under the settlement, the parties agree to abide by federal law he wrote for the governing of San Juan-Chama water.

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal – Reprinted with permission