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Editorial – Too Many Dip Into River Supply

August 15, 2004
Albuquerque Journal
In This Release
The recent controversy about the status of flows in the Santa Fe River below the wastewater treatment plant is emblematic of a growing problem in New Mexico in which competing interests fight over increasingly precious water supplies. We commend the farmers and citizens of La Bajada, some of whose economic viability is at stake, for fighting to ensure that their senior water rights are protected and for making this issue more visible to the public.

Unfortunately, as can happen with these one-dimensional debates, the health of the river and its cottonwood/willow bosque has been absent from the public discourse, except as a convenient scapegoat for decisions that have over-allocated our limited water supplies.

WildEarth Guardians, as a part of our “Arteries of Life” campaign to protect Southwestern waterways, has had a long-standing interest in and has engaged in work toward protecting and restoring the ecological vitality of the Santa Fe River.

In fact, I am currently directing WildEarth Guardians’ multi-year restoration effort of the river, which, after numerous delays and stoppages, is nearing completion. As a part of this work I have been on the river nearly every day since February and I am well acquainted with the flow regimes over the last six months.

In the late winter and early spring, while the river flows fluctuated during the course of day, there was always a reliable flow- low in the morning but increasing in volume consistently throughout the day as the city users increased their use of water.

Unfortunately, beginning in late May, the city dramatically altered this flow regime, and river flows actually stopped completely for a number of hours during the middle of the day on a handful of occasions. These series of stoppages caused the river to dry for periods of time, cutting off use for downstream water right users, and killing fish and amphibians that depend upon the Santa Fe River.

After being notified by the La Bajada farmers and other concerned citizens, the wastewater treatment plant temporarily restored more consistent flows. However, in recent days flows have been reduced once again to a trickle during the midday.

We believe that the senior water rights of the downstream farmers and citizens in the communities of La Cieneguilla and La Bajada must be protected. We also believe that those users should receive their allotment of water via a living and properly functioning river with healthy wildlife habitat and recreational values, and not simply via an irrigation ditch or worse yet, a pipeline, as some have proposed.

Some citizens and elected officials within the city have expressed their belief that our restoration work, namely the planting of native cottonwoods along the river, may be to blame for the downstream water losses.

Though we believe there is a strong scientific basis to refute these charges, we also strongly disagree with the ethic of those who would scapegoat a living river and the ecosystem it sustains for using water.

Yes, trees use water. But an ecosystem sustains life. This ecosystem also reduces evaporation by shading a once sun-baked stream, recharges the ground water and purifies polluted waters.

Not only is our restoration work serving to enhance these water-related values, but it is also restoring one of the most endangered habitats in all of North America-southwestern cottonwood/willow forests. These ecosystems are a rich oasis, providing habitat for more than 75 percent of all wildlife in our arid region.

However, in an effort to find a solution to this controversy, WildEarth Guardians, in partnership with the Surface Water Quality Department at the New Mexico Environment Department, will soon begin monitoring flow volumes upstream and downstream end of the Santa Fe River Preserve. This will enable us to determine whether flows are reduced, unchanged or possibly even enhanced by the restored habitat along this section of the river.

In the end we suspect that the real problem with Santa Fe River flows has much more to do with careless over-allocation of a limited supply- especially at critical times.

It is during the critical summer months, when farmers and the river itself are in dire need of this precious water source, that the conflict for water intensifies. Yet it is precisely during this critical period when effluent is diverted to Las Campanas, the city golf course and other entities with whom the city has contracts, bleeding the river dry.

Each of these contracts are new demands on the river system- none of which existed a mere decade ago. Furthermore, the citizens of Santa Fe have dramatically reduced water consumption through conservation over the last few drought-stricken years, thereby significantly decreasing water delivered to the treatment plant.

Though the city is constrained to some degree by its inflows, we believe that downstream water users and the Santa Fe River are being shortchanged by numerous circumstances that the city can change.

The bottom line is that the current water management regime needs to change. A living river and an ancient tradition are both at stake.

We call on the city to develop a management regime that ensures that a minimum flow consistently reaches the village of La Bajada and also allows for the Santa Fe River to continue to be a living river for all of us to enjoy.

Copyright 2004 Albuquerque Journal – Reprinted with permission