From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):
WildEarth Guardians have not backed off from seeking more water from Colorado to keep fish afloat in New Mexico. This week the environmental group wrote to U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor asking the department to become more actively involved in management of the Rio Grande to protect endangered species like the silvery minnow and provide water for wild and scenic river and recreational uses as well as bolstering bosque and wildlife refuge areas in New Mexico. The group specifically asked, for example, that the department “engage” the states of Colorado and New Mexico “in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water.”
The Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) is watching the WildEarth actions closely since they could ultimately affect water use in Colorado. The group maintains that downstream states are already receiving their “fair share of water” through Rio Grande Compact requirements that have been in place for decades.
RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told the water district’s board of WildEarth’s latest move this week and said although the environmental group acknowledges the compact, it does not agree with it.
“There is no panacea that will right the wrongs of the past century on behalf of the Rio Grande,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians . “The fate of the river, however, depends on the willingness and leadership of state and federal agencies to create a water right that belongs to the Rio Grande ” The wild west approach to managing water in the Rio Grande Basin cannot continue without further serious consequences for flows in the river. Interior is in a unique position to implement and navigate new strategies and to reform the archaic system of water management under which it currently operates.”
WildEarth in its letter to the Department of Interior recommended: 1) expanding “the scope of the solutions” by engaging the states of Colorado and New Mexico in order to find a way to ensure the Rio Grande receives its fair share of water, 2) providing funding so the Bureau of Land Management can determine the flows necessary in the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River to preserve recreational , scenic and other values of the designated reach in central New Mexico, and 3) investigating and planning to remove or modify the dams and reservoirs that segment the Rio Grande to reconnect isolated habitat.
Robbins said the water district needs to keep track of this situation.
“We are going to have to pay more attention. We are going to have to be more involved. We are going to have to be sure the state of Colorado protects compact apportioned waters for beneficial use within Colorado.”
Robbins said it was ironic that within a few days of Gary Boyce’s video presentation on the internet proposing to take San Luis Valley Water north WildEarth Guardians sent a letter to the Department of Interior proposing to send more water south.
“We are going to end up having to deal with a proposal to take water north for the metro area, Front Range and demands that federal agencies take an active role trying to force more water out of the Valley going south,” Robbins said.
He said there have been efforts by people in New Mexico to buy senior water rights in Colorado to try to send more water downstream, but the compact that governs how much water goes downstream is between states, not individuals. If someone were to buy water rights in Colorado and retire them in hopes of sending more water downstream, it would just mean that the next water right in line would get to use the water, and it would not affect the total volume sent to downstream states.
RGWCD Board Member Cory Off said it is interesting the WildEarth group wants to improve the bosque in New Mexico but does not seem to care about Colorado’s scenic areas. Robbins said the cooperation the Valley and Colorado have experienced in protecting riparian areas in this state does not exist in the same manner in New Mexico, but Colorado should not have to “disassemble what’s good in Colorado because they would like to see that happen in New Mexico.”
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):
For more than four decades, Colorado has followed the letter of the law that dictates how flows on the Rio Grande are divvied up with downstream neighbors New Mexico and Texas.
But a New Mexico environmental group concerned with the survival of an endangered fish says that is not enough. WildEarth Guardians told Colorado officials in January it intended to sue the state over its management of the Rio Grande, claiming that the miserly flows that cross the state line in May and June of dry years were not enough to preserve the Rio Grande silvery minnow. Last week, the group wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which has the responsibility of preserving the fish and also plays a large role in managing the river in New Mexico, asking that it exert more influence over Colorado.
“We just see the federal government playing some role in making the conversation more broad,” said Jen Pelz, an attorney for the guardians who specializes in water issues.
Pelz said she has not gotten a formal response from the state regarding the January notice.
But David Robbins, an attorney for the Alamosa-based Rio Grande Water Conservation District, was clear in his review of the letter to the Interior with the district’s board.
“It’s wrong and it deserves to be resisted strenuously,” he said.
Water users in the valley have lived up to the compact’s obligations and aren’t required to go beyond it, he said.
“We don’t have to let the water go downstream,” Robbins said. “We’re entitled to use it in our state and we always want to remember that.”
Colorado has complied with the 1939 Rio Grande Compact for more than four decades after settling a lawsuit brought by New Mexico and Texas. Following the 1968 settlement, Colorado’s state engineer initiated the practice of curtailing surface water rights — even those that predate the compact — to ensure that enough water made it downstream to satisfy compact requirements.
The delivery requirements vary from year to year, depending on the size of Colorado’s water supply. When the Rio Grande has a wet year, more water must be sent downstream. In dry years, water users in the San Luis Valley keep a bigger share.
But there are no requirements that dictate what time of year the water has to be delivered. When the irrigation season begins April 1 in the valley, irrigators divert water for nearly 600,000 acres of potatoes, barley, alfalfa and pasture. Moreover, what the plants don’t soak up in late spring and early summer, often percolates down to the unconfined aquifer, which many water users then tap to finish their crops after the stream flows have dwindled.
But for Pelz, the compact, with its emphasis on the role of the states, is not enough to solve the river’s problems.
“No one really looks at it as a whole river,” she said.
The timing of Colorado’s diversions are a problem, WildEarth Guardians argued, because in dry years the compact allows Colorado water users to take nearly all of the river’s flows. The group’s letter to interior officials noted that on May 18 of last year, the Rio Grande reached its peak flow and Colorado was diverting 98 percent of the river before it crossed the state line. That leaves an insufficient amount of water left over when the minnow enters breeding season in May and reduces the chances of the fish’s survival, the group said.
And the dry years in which this scenario occurs are likely to become the norm as climate change advances, the group said in the letter.
Pelz estimated that shutting down irrigators for three days would produce the flows needed to clean out sediment and produce the habitat needed for the minnow.
“It doesn’t take shutting down the San Luis Valley for two weeks,” she said.
But Robbins pointed to a host of problems in New Mexico that could be solved before asking Colorado to send additional water downstream.
For example, New Mexico has five dams that hinder the minnow and Colorado has nothing to do with their operations.
Moreover, Robbins said that as early as 1916, the minnow was effectively healthy despite the fact that Colorado already had reached its peak use along the Rio Grande.
And the conservation district has undertaken its own plan to preserve habitat for the southwestern willow flycatcher, a federally endangered species that also is of concern to WildEarth Guardians.
The demands from the south for more water out of the valley also come just as valley rancher Gary Boyce has developed a new proposal to export water to the Front Range.
The timing of the two developments was not lost on Robbins.
“If everybody in the room and all of your neighbors are starting to feel a little bit pulled asunder or under threat of being drawn and quartered, you’re probably awake and your senses are working,” he said.
More Rio Grande River Basin coverage here.