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Tribal perspectives key to Rio Grande study

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A turkey vulture soars over the Rio Grande between Santa Fe and White Rock on Aug. 19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The ongoing Rio Grande Basin Study, led by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, aims to gauge future water supply and demand from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to Elephant Butte Dam.

The study will be a tool for water managers, said Dagmar Llewellyn, a Reclamation hydrologist and civil engineer.

“We can collectively envision better water management in our basin, try it out in our models and see which ideas work best,” she said during a Thursday meeting of the study participants.

Having tribes and pueblos at the table is crucial to gathering a complete picture of water use in the basin.

The Pueblos of Sandia, Santo Domingo and Taos have signed a memorandum of agreement to participate in the study on a tribal committee. Several more are expected to join.

Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, said the Rio Grande study is “way ahead of the game” in terms of tribal participation.

“In New Mexico, you’re dealing with over 20 different tribal sovereigns, which each have their own unique agenda and cultural significance of water,” he said. “You have to reach out to each one of those sovereigns separately.”

Vigil is also the interim executive director for the Ten Tribes Partnership, which advocates for tribal participation in Colorado River management decisions.

Tribes were excluded from Reclamation’s Colorado River Basin Study in 2010, despite holding water rights equivalent to 20% of the river’s volume.

That spurred the groups to create a tribal water study, which the federal government then added to the main study.

Vigil said inclusive conversations allow each tribe to share its “water story.”

Cultural values, historical water use and data, and infrastructure plans all need to be documented.

“You can’t ultimately make (water) decisions unless you know that tribal piece,” Vigil said.

Dozens of agriculture groups, nonprofits and municipalities are also study participants.

“We really need this basin study, so that we don’t have to work so hard to avoid disasters in the future – like what’s trying to unfold this year that we’ve been barely able to stave off,” said Jennifer Faler, Reclamation’s Albuquerque area manager.

Rio Grande managers used stored water and Colorado River water this summer to keep river stretches wet for irrigation and fish.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.


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