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Editorial: Water conservationists should be commended

February 24, 2005
Letty Belin, Belin & Sugarman
In This Release
Santa Fe, NM – February 24, 2005 – Finally there is consensus among some of the major players on theRio Grande that water conservation and ecological values are worthy.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and a coalition of six environmental groups on Wednesday announced an agreement they say will ensure the survival of the river, whose waters are the source of much competition and conflict.

They are to be commended for compromising rather than continuing a protracted and costly legal confrontation that was counterproductive.

In exchange for significant conservation concessions from the city that acknowledge the need for water to sustain the river itself as an ecosystem, the environmental groups agreed to end their litigation over the city’s San Juan-Chama water diversion project.

The project, long deemed critical to the city’s future drinking water supply, has been in legal jeopardy, because the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the city’s agreement with the federal government to transfer water from the Colorado River to the Rio Grande basin also recognize an essential need to use that water for ecological purposes.

The agreement gives the city and its residents legal relief, while requiring the city to do several things to protect the Rio Grande as a living, flowing, natural system.

Indeed, for the first time on the Rio Grande – and, the groups contend, in the water-contentious West – space will be allocated in the city’s Abiquiu reservoir for water that will be dedicated to environmental purposes, including sustaining endangered species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow.

The city committed to provide 30,000 acre-feet of storage space for exclusively environmental purposes.

In addition, the city committed to:

  • Help fund a $250,000 pilot water leasing program that would pursue agricultural water for environmental purposes.
  • Change its water billing system to allow residents to add $1 per month to their bills to fund environmental water acquisition for the Rio Grande.

While none of this changes New Mexico law, which does not recognize in-stream river flow as a beneficial use, it represents a significant step toward a fundamental change in how New Mexico and other Western states think about and manage crucial and limited water resources.

The agreement also signals an urban-conservation alliance that openly challenges whether agricultural uses of Rio Grande water are always the wisest and most economical. It suggests the city and environmental groups are prepared to see if money talks by trying to entice individual farmers to become part of the solution – literally – by trading their water for cash.

Additionally, the agreement likely will pressure the other defendant in the pending suit, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, to live up to its name. Conservation organizations have long argued that with more efficient and less wasteful agricultural water practices, significant Rio Grande water could be saved, leased or purchased for ecological purposes.

The agreement is welcome, because it represents the beginning of a new ethic, one that requires that nature get its share – that vulnerable ecosystems, such as the Rio Grande and the species it supports, should not be allowed to perish.

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Tribune – Reprinted with permission