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River flow may be too low for minnow

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State and federal water managers are scrambling to find ways to stretch their supplies of Rio Grande water this summer after the April runoff forecast suggested there may not be enough to meet a mandate under federal law to provide water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.

Without extra water, the Rio Grande could dry through Albuquerque by July, which would violate the terms of a 2003 minnow management plan established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The plan designated the Albuquerque stretch of the river as a refuge for the tiny fish, which used to be found from the Gulf of Mexico to northern New Mexico. The plan requires water agencies, led by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to keep the river flowing through Albuquerque for the fish.

The environmental problems are the latest to emerge as New Mexico grapples with the third consecutive year of drought. The biggest impact to date has been the curtailment of farm water supplies, and legal battles over water management have cropped up on most of the state’s major rivers.

For the minnow, the Bureau of Reclamation will be able to buy some water from a handful of water users that have surplus supplies available, running it down the Rio Grande during the heat of summer to keep the river wet, according to Carolyn Donnelly, one of the agency’s Albuquerque water managers. But Donnelly acknowledged at a water operations briefing Wednesday that the currently available supplies “may not meet the supply demand gap.”

Donnelly said her agency is meeting with Rio Grande water managers to come up with ways of stretching the limited supplies available in this drought year. If that does not prove to be enough to meet the minnow flow requirements, the water managers plan to approach the Fish and Wildlife Service with a proposal for changes in the minnow rules, including the possibility of reducing the legal flow requirement, Bureau of Reclamation officials said Wednesday.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Charna Lefton said the agency, which bears the legal responsibility for protecting the fish, is in discussions with the water agencies about what to do about the problem “in full recognition that this is an extremely dry year.” Lefton would not comment on whether the agency has made any decision about whether it is willing to reduce the flow requirements.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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