New Mexico: Rio Grande `endangered'
Albuquerque, New Mexico - Environmental groups are blaming Albuquerque for helping the Rio Grande make the fifth spot on American Rivers' "Most Endangered Rivers" list, released today.
It is the fourth time since 1995 that the river has made the list. American Rivers, an environmental protection group, says it ranked the Rio Grande this year because withdrawals planned by Albuquerque and Brownsville, Texas, will hurt the river.
"For two summers in a row, the Rio Grande has failed to reach the sea," said Rebecca R. Wodder, American Rivers president. "If the cities succeed in securing more river water and federal agencies stick with status quo irrigation deliveries, the Rio Grande may have seen the last of the Gulf of Mexico."
Albuquerque Water Resources Manager John Stomp says the city is getting a bum rap.
Stomp says he agrees that decreasing flow is a problem on the Rio Grande, but argues that two years of drought in the Southwest are more to blame than Albuquerque.
"I'm not sure how you'd increase flows to get it back to the Gulf of Mexico," Stomp said. "We're in a drought. Last year with the lack of moisture, even if people didn't take a single drop out of the river, I think it still wouldn't have made it to the Gulf."
Albuquerque, which now relies on groundwater, intends to get up to 75 percent of its water from the Rio Grande and the San Juan River by 2006 as part of the San Juan/Chama project, removing 100,000 acre-feet of water per year and only returning half of that as effluent, Stomp said.
American Rivers says moving water from one river to satisfy another is not the way to solve the problem.
"It's time that the era of laissez fair management of water should give way to cooperation and negotiation," said Steve Harris, director of Rio Grande restoration for American Rivers. "If Albuquerque is permitted to manage river water in the same old way, both farmers and the Rio Grande will suffer."
Stomp says moving the water doesn't hurt the Rio Grande. The water used by the city in the San Juan/Chama Project would be the same amount of water added to the river by the San Juan diversion, leaving the net water loss in the Rio Grande at zero, he said.
"We aren't taking any water from the Rio Grande," Stomp said. "We can't. And we've been working very hard at conservation and starting new programs to make the river better, with more water, hopefully for a long time into the future."
Low river water levels have put the city and environmentalists at odds because they threaten the habitat of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Environmentalists want the city to release San Juan/Chama water held in northern reservoirs into the river to protect the fish. The city doesn't want to release the water because it is storing it for future use, Stomp said.
The argument is being debated in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and both groups have been waiting since January to hear whether the water release will be mandated.
American Rivers says blame for dwindling water resources in the river should also go to Brownsville, Texas, which plans to build a dam, creating a new reservoir near the river's mouth. The organization says it will damage commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing fresh water entering the area.
Conservation efforts are already reducing the stress on the river and groundwater sources, Stomp said. "Our groundwater pumping is going down," he said. "We pumped less water last year than we have since 1985, and that's with all the increased demand and development."
There are many things residents can do to help get more water into the river. The main one, of course, is using less water on lawns and in homes, but there are also many other ways to help, Stomp said.
"There are a lot of projects to restore the bosque around the river, taking out nonnative salt cedar and other plants that suck up a lot of water," Stomp said. "There are certainly watershed plans in action focused on gutting back overgrown forests, which saves water and reduces the fire threat. There's probably a lot more going on now than there has been in the last 10 years."
THE TOP 10American Rivers' list of 10 rivers it says are the most endangered in 2003. American Rivers, a Washington-based nonprofit conservation group, says the rivers on the list are not necessarily the most polluted, but those that they say are most in peril because of severe water shortages and other problems.
1) Big Sunflower River, Mississippi.
2) Klamath River, California and Oregon.
3) Ipswich River, Massachusetts.
4) Gunnison River, Colorado.
5) Rio Grande, Southwest.
6) Mattaponi River, Virginia.
7) Platte River, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
8) Snake River, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
9) Tallapoosa River, Alabama and Georgia.
10) Trinity River, Texas.
The Associated Press
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