Pilot water leasing program to be first of kind on Rio Grande

The City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, in conjunction with six conservation groups, has established a first-of-its-kind fund that will allow water to be leased from farmers and kept in the Rio Grande rather than being diverted to farm fields...

ALBUQUERQUE, NM, Feb. 28, 2007 -- The City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, in conjunction with six conservation groups, announced yesterday they have established a first-of-its-kind fund that will allow water to be leased from farmers and kept in the Rio Grande rather than being diverted to farm fields.

The $250,000 Living River Fund will be used exclusively to establish a pilot agricultural water-leasing program, the first of its kind on the Rio Grande, in an effort to provide sustained flows for the Rio Grande and the endangered species that depend on it. Fund organizers have notified the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (which oversees water management on the Rio Grande from Cochiti Reservoir to Elephant Butte) of the existence of the fund and the program's desire to help identify farmers to voluntarily participate in the water-leasing initiative.

"This is a long overdue and creative solution that will help restore the Rio Grande," said John Horning, Executive Director of Forest Guardians, one of the conservation groups that helped create the fund. "The Rio Grande is the lifeblood of our state and its ecological health is vital to the health of our region."

The Water Authority contributed $225,000 to the fund as part of a February 2005 agreement with conservation groups. The agreement settled a portion of an ongoing lawsuit between cities, farmers and conservation groups over river and endangered species needs in the Rio Grande.

"This new consensus shows that we can and must protect the Rio Grande and solve New Mexico's water problems," said Mayor Martin Chavez. "Leasing water from willing farmers to provide flows for the Rio Grande is a win-win solution."

Agricultural water leasing is commonly used to meet environmental flow requirements on many western rivers and while it has been considered on the Rio Grande it has never before been implemented. Three different studies, the first funded by the U.S Bureau of Reclamation in 1996 and the most recent authorized by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in 2006, have shown that leasing water is hydrologically and administratively feasible.

"Today we are one step closer toward more flexible river management, by partnering with water users in the middle valley who can be part of this common sense solution," said Kara Gillon of Defenders of Wildlife, another signatory to the agreement.

Martin Heinrich, Water Authority Chair, expressed hope that the new fund would attract support from other sources.

"This is a unique and historic partnership among the City of Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, and six regional, local and national conservation groups," Heinrich said. "We'd love to see it grow to include both the State of New Mexico and the federal government. Their support would be an enormous boost for what promises to be a successful and innovative program."

The ongoing lawsuit, Rio Grande Silvery Minnow vs. Martinez, was originally filed in November 1999 and resulted in a series of legal rulings that asserted federal agencies must comply with the Endangered Species Act in their operation of federal water projects. These controversial rulings created a political firestorm that resulted in the February 2005 agreement the City of Albuquerque and the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority entered into with the conservation groups that originally filed the lawsuit.

Other conservation groups that are signatories to the agreement include National Audubon Society, New Mexico Audubon Council, The Sierra Club, and The Southwest Environmental Center.

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