Tiny fish could pull plug on city's water plan

With demand for water rising, Albuquerque hoped to tap the Rio Grande. But fish and farmers also depend on the river.

New Mexico's largest city, situated along the upper section of the Rio Grande, is running out of groundwater and it plans to begin drawing water from the Rio Grande in 2006 - enough water to support continuing population growth until about 2040.

But that plan faces a serious challenge.

The Rio Grande is home to the silvery minnow, a fish protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. In September, the river's dangerously low levels prompted a local US District Court to order the federal Bureau of Reclamation to release water into the Rio Grande for survival of the fish - specifically water brought into the Rio Grande basin for Albuquerque.

The decision is now in appeal at US 10th District Court of Appeals in Denver. If it is upheld, it would not only cast the future of Albuquerque's water supply in doubt, but will reshape legal priorities for water allocation and deliveries from federally operated dams throughout the Western United States.

The case is the first time, perhaps, that a large city has been so directly affected by a conflict over the Endangered Species Act. For the city, the ruling could impact the faucets of every household.

"Anytime the river needs water they'll have to go somewhere for it," says John Stomp, Albuquerque's water resources manager. "Will the city lose all its water every year? I don't know. But certainly the whole allotment is in jeopardy."

But a few here are struggling to reframe the debate which has been described by Mayor Martin Chavez as an issue of fish versus families. Riparian experts and other biologists see this as more than just the minnow - that it is an "indicator species" showing the relative health of the river, like the northern spotted owl in California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as various salmon species in the Columbia River Basin.

"This is a classic example of the canary in the coal mine," says Jim Brooks, a fisheries biologist at the local US Fisheries Office. "If we provide water for the silvery minnow, all other fish species - and other wildlife - benefit."

Taking a broader view

Deb Hibbard of the nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration also views the issue as a larger one beyond the immediate sparring over the endangered fish.

"The silvery minnow has become a scapegoat when it should be a warning sign," says Ms. Hibbard. "The Rio Grande is a source of life for us in this desert, but if we continue to think of it primarily as a water conveyance system, that's all we'll be left with."

Inside her office, in a tiny, old, adobe-style home near the University of New Mexico campus, Hibbard has posted a bumper sticker produced by the city to promote the new water plan.

The sticker once read "Our Water Our Future," but Hibbard has taken a blue marker to the city's promotional bumper sticker slashing an "X" through "Water" - above it writing "River" - so that the slogan instead reads "Our River Our Future."

It's no small distinction. While New Mexicans rank the river itself as a more important use of water than their own yards and gardens, support for the minnow is not as strong. A recent poll found that two out of three New Mexicans feel the Endangered Species Act goes too far to protect species such as the silvery minnow.

Wide ramifications

Not just New Mexico water law, but water law throughout the West will be reorganized if the lower court's ruling is upheld, according to University of New Mexico law professor G. Emlen Hall.

A core principle of western water law is the doctrine of prior appropriation, or "first in time, first in right." Meaning the first people to begin using water are entitled to their full share before the next gets any, and so on. Like other earlier rulings around the country having to do with the Endangered Species Act, the current ruling makes preservation of endangered species effectively the most senior right in the system.

"It has the potential for really upsetting western water law," says Hall, "not that that's such a bad thing, but everybody's waiting to see."

Other Western states, too, are worried about the outcome. Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming have filed amicus briefs supporting New Mexico and Albuquerque in appealing the decision.

Meanwhile crews with the US Fish and Wildlife Service are readying for a massive egg-collecting effort during the silvery minnow's spawn in the next couple of weeks. The service hopes to collect up to a million eggs to bolster captive populations, kept as insurance against extermination of the fish.

Jim Brooks, project leader at the local US Fisheries Office, hopes he'll never have to rely on the captive population to reestablish the species, but says, "We are in a full-blown hatchery program here, because we just can't protect the flows in the river."

In contrast to other Western states, New Mexico has no legal mechanism to protect or maintain a certain level of flow in its rivers - excepting legal requirements to deliver water to states downstream.

Solutions to saver the silver minnow

A recent negotiation with Texas is expected to free up enough water to keep the minnow alive in the wild for another two years. And a group of water users, federal and state employees, conservationists, and others are pursuing funding from the US Congress to obtain additional water for the silvery minnow. The group hopes to acquire water by changing water management methods, through water conservation or the outright purchase of water rights.

While nonprofits, government programs, and Indian pueblos along the Rio Grande all continue to work outside the spotlight to restore the health of the river, the task ahead - of preserving the river's water delivery system and a healthy river ecosystem - could prove a bigger challenge than large-scale engineering projects of the previous century.

"There is a whole diverse group of people working to restore the river," says Hibbard, "If it was all really as divided as the news makes it seem, I'd have given up hope long ago."

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