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Water accord signed – Groups reach compromise with city

February 13, 2005
Erik Siemers, Albuquerque Tribune
In This Release
Albuquerque, NM – February 23 – The biggest legal challenge to the city’s San Juan-Chama water project is over.

Environmental groups that mounted the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow vs. Keys lawsuit signed an agreement this morning to take no further action against the city in exchange for a series of measures they said will provide for the river’s well-being and the minnow’s survival.

The groups agreed to drop current and future litigation against the project, and the city agreed to reserve 30,000 acre-feet of water in the Abiquiu Reservoir exclusively for environmental uses and commit funds for the start of a water-leasing program.

“What we’re signing this morning is of historic proportions,” Mayor Martin Chavez said from the Pueblo Monta?o Picnic Area in the bosque at Coors Boulevard and Montaó Road Northwest, where the agreement was signed. The environmental groups – which include the Sierra Club, Rio Grande Restoration and WildEarth Guardians – previously argued that the project to divert river water for use as Albuquerque drinking water would hurt efforts to preserve the Rio Grande ecosystem and harm the minnow.

“They have fought long to preserve water in this valley,” Chavez said, his dog Dukes scrambling around his ankles. “I have fought long and hard to make sure my city has water.”

The minnow dispute came to a head in 2003 when a federal judge found in favor of plaintiffs and ruled that the Bureau of Reclamation had the option to release any available water – including San Juan-Chama water – to preserve minnow habitat when necessary. The city had argued the water was bought under contract and could be used exclusively for the city’s drinking needs. The judge’s ruling, which was upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, was circumvented by legislation spearheaded by Sen Pete Domenici, an Albuquerque Republican.

Today’s agreement settled the portion of that lawsuit involving the San Juan-Chama water, but city water Manager John Stomp said legal challenges from other plaintiffs are still pending.

Highlights of today’s settlement are:

An agreement that the city set aside 30,000 acre-feet of water for environmental preservation purposes within the city-owned Abiquiu Reservoir. The environmental groups said it would become one of the only reservoirs in the West to allocate significant storage space for environmental water.

A commitment of $225,000 from the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Authority and $25,000 from the environmental groups to fund a pilot water-leasing program for the Middle Rio Grande area as a means to increase flows and protect various species.

The city will give water customers the option on their bills to donate $1 a month to a fund for acquiring additional water. The environmental groups lauded that as a way for city residents to make conservation efforts of their own.

The environmentalists also cheered the end of five years of litigation.

“To be an environmentalist, you have to be an optimist,” said David Henderson of the National Audubon Society. “This has been a good situation where being an optimist has paid off.”

Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Tribune – Reprinted with permission