Albuquerque expresses disappointment with water rights ruling

Officials with the City of Albuquerque were disappointed by a June 12 ruling which may endanger the city's access to Colorado River Basin water.

June 13, 2003 -- Officials with the City of Albuquerque were disappointed by a June 12 ruling which may endanger the city's access to Colorado River Basin water.

In a ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, a panel of judges decided that the Bureau of Reclamation can reduce contract deliveries and restrict diversions of its project waters to satisfy the Endangered Species Act.

In carrying out this ruling, the judges authorized the bureau to use Albuquerque's San Juan-Chama Project water stored in an upstream reservoir to provide additional water in the Rio Grande to protect the endangered silvery minnow.

The decision puts at risk up to 70% of Albuquerque's future water supply.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin J. Chávez reacted with disappointment and concern and vowed to keep fighting to secure the future water supply of the largest city in New Mexico.

"Decades ago, Albuquerque wisely bought San Juan-Chama water rights to secure our future. With a depleting aquifer, our city's viability depends on that water. So the court's decision today, therefore, cannot be left to stand," said Chávez. "We are right now exploring every possible option. We may fight this further in court, and we will certainly look to take up a legislative remedy. But fight it we must."

New Mexico Gov. Richardson called the decision "a setback for New Mexico" and vowed to "pursue all legal remedies to overturn this shortsighted decision all the way to the Supreme Court. As governor, I pledge my best efforts to protect Albuquerque and New Mexico from this grievous imbalance in the Endangered Species Act."

The question put before the court was whether the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) can reduce deliveries of available water under its contracts with irrigation districts and cities in New Mexico to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

The eight-year dispute between environmentalists hoping to protect the endangered silvery minnow in the Rio Grande and farmers and other water customers reached a fever pitch in 2002, largely because of a drought in the region at that time.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are obliged to make sure that actions carried out, funded or authorized by the agencies won't harm any land-based listed species by consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

These agencies must use the best scientific and commercial data available to determine if any species may be present in the area affected by a proposed project or decision and then confer with the Secretary of the Interior if that action is likely to affect the species.

Seeing that the Rio Grande was going dry for lack of water flowing down it, various environmental groups sued the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These federal agencies operate water diversion and storage facilities along the Middle Rio Grande, the New Mexico portion of the Rio Grande river which extends from Valarde to the headwaters of the Elephant Butte Reservoir, north of Truth or Consequences, and includes the Rio Chama and Jemez River tributaries.

The first order was issued in April 2002, followed by an appeal by the State of New Mexico, the City of Albuquerque, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Rio Chama Acequia Association. These groups appealed because of their concern for the impact of the ruling on New Mexico's agricultural communities and urban centers.

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