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River Elbows Minnow Off Center Stage

February 25, 2005
Opinion - The Albuquerque Journal
In This Release
Albuquerque, NM, Feb 25 — When environmentalists filed a lawsuit five years ago to appropriate some of Albuquerque’s “imported” water, it was widely seen as pitting the silvery minnow against city-dwelling humans.

An agreement announced Wednesday resolves the conflict to the benefit of the river upon which both species rely.

The lawsuit spawned outrage. The water it targeted to solve problems in the Rio Grande was not even “native” Rio Grande water. It was water piped from the Colorado River basin via the San Juan-Chama Project. Albuquerque, realizing its population growth would outstrip water supplies, had committed to the project in 1963. Was municipal foresight to be punished by diverting some of the city’s “new” water to minnows? Environmentalist groups and federal courts answered yes. The city and Congress answered no — but it was the wrong question.

Seventies-era endangered species law, New Mexico’s age-old water scarcity and current population growth contrived to fashion a lens that focused on one species’ needs versus another’s. The silvery minnow as an endangered species, has legal standing to fight for water in the river. The river does not, though without water it and the complex web of life it supports are dead. A dead river would be a dreadful thing far beyond its channel, banks and the bosque it nourishes to the city it runs through. This agreement refocuses attention from two species to the river. Environmental groups drop claims to Albuquerque’s imported water. The city, in what may be an unprecedented move, earmarks scare storage space at Abiquiu Reservoir for water for the river, along with $225,000 to acquire water for purely environmental purposes.

That’s an acknowledgement that water is important beyond the established beneficial uses of farms, industry, households and municipalities. Unless the river is to devolve to a ditch, it must have more than just the water it delivers.

The city also agreed to give water utility customers an opportunity to add $1 a month on water payments to fund acquisition of environmental water. The amount of money raised will be less important than the awareness that the river, not just the minnow, is at risk.

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal – Reprinted with permission