Current work in wildlife, rivers, public lands, and climate
Rio Rancho Targets Agricultural Water to Sure Up its Wells
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—In an effort to protect flows in the Rio Grande, WildEarth Guardians filed two protests this week with the State Engineer (available to read here and here) challenging water transfer applications by the City of Rancho seeking to move agricultural water upstream for municipal uses. These applications continue the City’s push to change how, when, and where nearly 800 acre-feet (261 million gallons of water) is diverted from and returns to the Rio Grande. Over the last 12 months, the City has filed over seven such applications all seeking to move water for diversion at its wells in Rio Rancho. Impacts from these changes threaten flows in over 130 miles of river in the Middle Rio Grande from Albuquerque to Elephant Butte Reservoir.
“The State of New Mexico is failing its citizens,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians and Rio Grande Waterkeeper. “It’s time the State carefully examine such transfers to ensure that water use is not expanded and that the river and other obligations downstream are met, including New Mexico’s delivery obligation under the Rio Grande Compact.”
The State Engineer, historically, has not placed terms and conditions on such transfers to ensure that the river is kept whole and that the transfers do not increase water use in the Basin. In fact, the opposite is true, these transfers provide no assurance that the retired agricultural acreage is actually dried up or that supplemental wells are shuttered. Further, these transfers often lead to additional depletions to the river. In past transfers, the State Engineer has approved the sale and transfer of agricultural water to upstream municipalities while allowing the landowner to continue to irrigate the associated farmland with water leased from the District’s so-called “Water Bank” despite the likely new depletions caused by the duplicate use.
Guardians’ filings also highlight how the City’s proposed water transfer will reduce flows in nearly 130 miles of the Rio Grande and change the location, amount, and timing of return flows that contribute to the river system south of Socorro. These inputs are vital to keeping the river wet through Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and ensuring the refuge has water to maintain the floodplain habitat that is an ecological crown jewel as well as economic engine in the region. Further, the approval of these water transfers will continue to make it even more difficult for New Mexico to meet its delivery obligation to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact. This is critical based on the current litigation between Texas and New Mexico regarding New Mexico’s compliance with that delivery obligation.
“We need to enter a new era of accountability that actually serves the public welfare,” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, staff attorney at Guardians. “This passive attitude by the State-blindly approving transfer applications at the expense of the river and its other users-needs to stop.”