Farmers may lose water to minnow

January 29, 2003

By the Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico - Indian pueblos along the Rio Grande and others who use the river's water could face a very dry year if the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a federal judge's decision on the silvery minnow, a Bureau of Reclamation official said Tuesday.

The bureau made public the federal government's draft biological assessment for 2003 for the middle Rio Grande, where the tiny endangered fish lives.

U.S. District Judge James Parker last year said the bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife should consider using water from Heron Reservoir in northern New Mexico to help the fish. The judge ordered flows in the Rio Grande to continue to the San Acacia Reach between Belen and Socorro, where the largest surviving wild population of the minnow exists.

Parker's ruling, if it stands, would reduce deliveries of Heron water to San Juan-Chama Project users or to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers water to irrigators. Among those are the six pueblos along the river - Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Sandia and Isleta.

The city of Albuquerque and agricultural users along the river are appealing Parker's decision. Parties involved in the case hope for a decision from the 10th Circuit Court in Denver before irrigation season begins on March 1st, 2003.

Kenneth Maxey, area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, released details Tuesday of the preliminary biological proposal. The Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service expect to have the final proposal ready by the end of February.

Maxey said it's possible that if Parker's ruling stands, there would be restrictions on how much water farmers and Indian pueblos can use to irrigate crops.

Another option might be to reduce water allocations for the San Juan-Chama Project to keep enough water flowing to ensure survival of the silvery minnow.

Maxey said there is still much work to be done on the proposal and the agencies are seeking additional public comment.

"This is a draft biological assessment. It has some holes in it," Maxey said.

Maxey also noted New Mexico remains in a severe drought and the prospects for this year aren't good. He said reservoirs such as Heron, El Vado, Abiquiu and Cochiti are all well below normal and the runoff from this winter's snowfall isn't likely to alleviate the situation.

"As far as we can see, they are pretty dismal right now, although it's still pretty early in the year," Maxey said. "Usually we rely on the April 1 forecast (from the National Resources Conservation Service) to set our hydrology plans for the year."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press