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New Mexico eyes Closed Basin for more Rio Grande water

Brief by Central Staff

Closed Basin – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

It was a dry summer — so dry that the Rio Grande went dry in parts of central New Mexico on account of diversions by the Middle Rio Grande Water Conservancy District (MRGWCD).

A dry riverbed is pretty hard on fish, and among those fish is the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

Go back to 1951, and the MRGWCD was nearly bankrupt. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rescued it, and all the dams, canals, and the like were signed over to the feds, although they were operated by the district as agents of the U.S. government.

But until this year, no one seemed to care whether the MRGWCD was a federal or a state agency. However, federal agencies are bound by the Endangered Species Act, while state agencies aren’t.

And so several New Mexico environmental groups sued the MRGWCD, arguing that as a federal agency, it was required to leave enough water in the river to support the endangered silvery minnow.

Rather than proceed with a trial, a federal magistrate ordered the parties to negotiate a temporary settlement so that the minnow wouldn’t die off this summer. They found about 85,000 acre feet in a reservoir that could be released, thereby allowing both fish in the river and continued irrigation.

That’s a temporary measure though. And now we get to the local connection. The Closed Basin Project already transfers water from Saguache County to the Rio Grande, and if the Rio Grande is short of water, why not try pumping more from the Closed Basin?

Tom Jervis of the New Mexico Audubon Council was one of the negotiators. “It was mentioned,” he said, “but there are lots of other things we can do here to improve river flows without trying to get more from the Closed Basin.”

He pointed out that MRGWCD’s diversions are not properly measured, and that would be a good place to start. If that happened, then the flows that New Mexico owes to Texas and Mexico could be released in the summer, when the river needs more water, rather than in the winter when it doesn’t. “As it is, they don’t trust the MRGWCD not to steal their water as it flows to Elephant Butte Reservoir.”

John Horning of Forest Guardians was also in the negotiations with MRGWCD. “We got a temporary fix, but there’s still a long-term problem that needs a long-term solution.”

Like more Closed-Basin water for the Rio Grande? “Nobody’s taken that off the table,” he said. “It could get some serious consideration in the future.”