FNS: Farmers, Environmentalists at Odds over Rio Grande's Silvery Minnow
- FNS: Farmers, Environmentalists at Odds over Rio Grande's Silvery Minnow
Date: 10/16/2002 3:32:44 PM Pacific Daylight Time
*This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Las Cruces Sun-News' October 13, 2002 edition.*
U.S. Chief Justice James A. Parker's ruling on the silvery minnow is not just about a fish.
Depending on who is talking, it concerns the health of the Rio Grande or agricultural economic survival.
Officials with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District contend that water ordered held back for the protection of the silvery minnow belongs to the farmers, and the government has no right to keep it from them.
"The water rights are vested in these farmers, as they and their predecessors have put the waters to beneficial use under state law. ... The United States does not own the water rights administered and delivered by EBID," the district said in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife effect study.
Environmentalists counter that the plight of the silvery minnow is the result of mismanagement of the Rio Grande.
Before the dams were built across the Rio Grande, the silvery minnow swam and propagated in the river below the Elephant Butte and Caballo dams. Now, it can only be found in a stretch of the Middle Rio Grande, less than 5 percent of its original range, according to John Hornung, director of Forest Guardians, one of the environmental groups who filed suit to protect the minnow's habitat.
"The silvery minnow is a messenger, and the message is that the Rio Grande is in deep trouble," Hornung said.
Kevin Bixby of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces said the issue goes beyond the silvery minnow.
"This whole issue isn't about a fish, it's about the health of the Rio Grande," Bixby said. "If we lose the silvery minnow, that means the river is in trouble. We need to reestablish the Rio Grande into its former habitat."
Judge Parker ordered the Bureau of Reclamation to release a sufficient amount of water from the Heron Reservoir into the Rio Grande through Albuquerque for a minimum flow below the San Acacia Diversion Dam where most surviving silvery minnows have been found.
The silvery minnow was placed on the endangered species list in 1994. And in June 2002 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Biological Opinion that the silvery minnow's Rio Grande habitat was in jeopardy.
In his memorandum of opinion, Judge Parker wrote that early in 2002 the bureau had been aware of extended drought conditions in New Mexico. But, even though it was aware of the water limitations, it made its contracted deliveries of water to the San Juan-Chama Project and Middle Rio Grande Conservation district.
It was not until August this year, after the bureau had made its contracted water delivery, that it requested new negotiations with the Fish and Wildlife Service concerning river flow requirements, the judge observed.
"The court believes this crisis situation could have been avoided if the federal defendants, especially the BOR, had properly performed their statutory duties," Judge Parker added in his memorandum.
The suit was filed by the Defenders of Wildlife, Forest Guardians, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club and Southwest Environmental Center, which has its office in Las Cruces.
The Bureau of Reclamation's Albuquerque office has not released any water from the Heron Reservoir, which is about 80 miles northwest of Santa Fe.
The latest weather forecasts have called for precipitation in the northern mountains, even the possibility of snow, and an approaching cold front. If these weather developments continue, the bureau could hold off releasing the water until next Wednesday or Oct. 20, Steve Hansen, the Albuquerque bureau deputy area manager, reported.
"If we start getting moisture up north and the weather starts to turn cold and people don't have to irrigate, we might get lucky and we would be able to stretch out the water release," Hansen said.
Judge Parker's ruling could deprive Middle Rio Grande Conservation District farmers of irrigation water that they have been depending on to grow their crops, said Subhas Shah, the district's chief engineer and chief executive officer.
The district has been identified as being in the stretch of river where the minnows have been able to survive. And it is the district that will be immediately affected and damaged, Shah said.
"The water stored in the Heron Reservoir has been contracted for the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District," Shah said. "And the water that is released for the minnow will not be available for the farmers next year."
The district has contracted for 20,900 acre-feet of water that flows down from the San Juan-Chama rivers project and the main stem of the Rio Grande.
According to Rio Grande Compact stipulations, the Middle Rio Grande district is not authorized to hold new water in the El Vado Reservoir because of downstream shortages. The compact mandates that when the water storage in the Elephant Butte Reservoir is below 400,000 acre-feet, the Middle Rio Grande district cannot store water. At the end of this year's irrigation season, the Elephant Butte storage level had dropped to slightly more than 300,000 acre-feet, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.
"And the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District farmers are going to suffer because we're not able to store water in El Vado," Shah said.
The Elephant Butte Irrigation District says the judge's plan would harm agriculture and that it contradicts scientific information. Most of the water stored in the Elephant Butte Reservoir is owned by district farmers, district officials contend.
The government has no claim to the water, the district said in the Fish and Wildlife study.
"Its functions, through the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, are limited to operation of the Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs. The Bureau of Reclamation must release water from storage when demanded by EBID," the statement said.
Farmers and dairies in Doña Ana and Sierra counties depend on the Elephant Butte Reservoir water supply. The estimated agriculture receipts for 2002 in the two counties was $328 million.
"It is estimated that these receipts from farming turn over two to six times in the local economy, thereby producing an economic impact of approximately $600 million to nearly $2 billion in the Southern New Mexico economy," the EBID comment said.
During a normal year of snow runoff, the Bureau of Reclamation releases about 790,000 acre-feet of water for the Elephant Butte district, El Paso Water Conservation District No. 2 and Ciudad Juarez Irrigation District.
"Any curtailment of the ability to store Rio Grande water in Elephant Butte Reservoir means a direct and immediate loss of water to EBID," the district said. "Without storage, the primary source of water into Elephant Butte, snow runoff from the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, cannot be used. The next most important source of water in the reservoir, flood water from rain, also cannot be used unless it can be stored."
Fish and Wildlife plan
The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed that the silvery minnow's critical habitat designation would extend downstream to the northern end of Elephant Butte Reservoir, or below the San Marcial railroad bridge. The agency proposes keeping water in the main pilot channel above the reservoir for the minnow habitat, which would interfere with the water flow into the reservoir, consultant Phil King said.
"The outcome of this proposed designation could be catastrophic for EBID, El Paso and Juarez," King said. "The Elephant Butte Reservoir is the heart of the Rio Grande Project. The Fish and Wildlife designation proposal would dictate the that the Bureau of Reclamation maintain a low level of water in the reservoir all the time. And the reservoir was built to hold water in wet years, to be used as irrigation water in dry years."
King is an associate director at New Mexico State University's Civil Engineer Department and also is an EBID consultant who helped write the comment.
What the Fish and Wildlife Service has not taken into account, he said, is that the snow runoff fluctuates every spring. According to the EBID statement the fluctuation in reservoir storage has gone from a low of 18,903 acre-feet in March of 1952 to a high of 2,303,800 acre-feet on June 16, 1942.
These wide-swinging fluctuations could cause the reservoir water to extend up to San Marcial or to withdraw far below the reservoir capacity. The capacity is 2 million acre-feet, and the present storage is a little more than 300,000.
King added that, although the Elephant Butte storage was so low this year, the bureau was able to release a full allotment this year to the EBID for irrigation because of management practices. When there was an adequate river flow in previous years, the bureau had stored water in the reservoir, water that was available for this "dry year," he said.
Curtailing flow into the reservoir also would upset the Elephant Butte district irrigation management. The peak irrigation use is in June and July, but the district needs to build up a good storage of water to have it available for immediate release during that period, King said.
The district also notes that the silvery minnows do not survive very long in the still waters of a lake. And extending the designated critical habitat to the upper region of the Elephant Butte Reservoir, which contains still waters, defies the Fish and Wildlife Service's own scientific definition of critical habitat, King said.
The Forest Guardians believe that the Rio Grande could be managed to restore it to a healthy condition to save the silver minnow and other endangered species and still supply water to irrigators. But it would require cooperation by all interested parties, Hornung said.
Agriculture uses about 80 percent of New Mexico's surface water. Hornung said environmentalists and farmers should start thinking of working together to develop what the Forest Guardians call "agricultural forbearance." That would include more efficient river water management and perhaps compensating farmers who would allow part of their water allotment to be diverted for environmental restoration, Hornung said.
The proportion of water that would be diverted into environmental restoration would depend on spring snow runoff.
"The key to this program would be to make sure that the water that is conserved through efficiency and dedicated to the river would not be marketed for sale," Hornung said.
Before the Rio Grande was confined to a channel, the river source was a series of loops that frequently changed during the spring runoff and adjacent wetlands. Originally, the silvery minnow habitat extended from the Gulf of Mexico to what is now Colorado. After the runoff, the minnow was able to survive by migrating to pockets of water left in the river ox bows and wetlands, Bixby said.
Now, since the Rio Grande was confined to a man-made channel, its habitat is limited to the Middle Rio Grande.
Two-thirds of the native fish species that had lived in the river below what is now Elephant Butte Dam have become extinct, Bixby added.
But the government agencies have allowed the problem to reach a crisis, Bixby contend. Environmental groups filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque in 1998 to start measures to restore the Rio Grande. Since that year, federal and state agencies have been meeting and discussing the issues in Albuquerque, but they have not accomplished anything, Bixby charged.
"The best thing that we can hope for now is to keep that upstream stretch of river wet so enough minnows can survive until next year so that they can continue breeding," Bixby said. "The silver minnows only live about two years. And if we had a couple years of dry river there, we could lose the species."
He said his contention is backed up by two UNM silvery minnow specialists, Steven Platania and Robert Dudley. They reported that the number of minnows collected in the Middle Rio Grande during August 2002 is one of the lowest recorded during the 1994-2002 monitoring study.
The Las Cruces Sun-News is on-line at:www.lcsun-news.com
Marvin Tessneer can be reached at mtessneer@...
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