Fight over water to save endangered minnow

Sept. 6, 2002 at 5:38 PM
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ALBUQUERQUE, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- An environmental coalition will ask a federal judge Monday to release more water from reservoirs in drought-stricken New Mexico to save an endangered minnow in the Rio Grande, an attorney for the group said Friday.

The chance of a settlement in the 3-year-old water dispute dimmed Thursday when the city of Albuquerque rejected a request from federal officials to release more of its stored water to protect the Rio Grande silvery minnow, which has been on the endangered list for eight years.

Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez said the city had already released enough of its water for the fish and officials didn't intend to provide any more because of concerns for future human needs in the state's largest city.

This spring U.S. District Judge James Parker ruled the federal government had violated the Endangered Species act by failing to consider stored water for the silvery minnow. He is now being asked to order up to 58,000-acre feet released into the 170-mile, middle portion of the shallow river.

Chavez said the judge has not been friendly to human water needs in the past.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he picked the silvery minnow over children," he remarked.

The Bureau of Land Management says more water is necessary to maintain the minimum flow levels in the Rio Grande for the survival of the minnow. They are saying portions of the river are going to dry up soon except for sewage affluent.

Letty Belin, an attorney for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, said the coalition is seeking enough water to maintain at least a portion of the river for the fish. Less than 5 percent of the original population in the river survives.

"We are asking that the judge order that some water be left in some part of the Rio Grande so there is some part of the river where some of the minnows can live," she said. "We are not asking that the whole river be kept flowing."

At stake is water stored in the Heron Reservoir and other reservoirs and water brought into the state from Colorado through the San Juan/Chama project.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is backing Albuquerque officials in their opposition.

"The seizure of San Juan/Chama water by the courts for the silvery minnow would be a frontal assault on the people of New Mexico and their livelihoods," he said.

Earlier this summer, the city of Albuquerque released 40,000 acre-feet of its water to the BLM and loaned another 70,000 acre-feet to the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District to appease farmers and environmentalists.

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