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Water agencies agree to $700K lease to protect silvery minnow

The Rio Grande as seen looking south from Bridge SW on Thursday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A little fish continues to make a big splash in the Rio Grande.

Three agencies will use water from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to protect Rio Grande silvery minnow habitat this fall.

On Wednesday, the water authority approved a lease of up to 7,000 acre-feet, or about 2.9 billion gallons, of its San Juan-Chama water to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at a cost not to exceed $700,000.

The San Juan-Chama project uses a series of tunnels and reservoirs to route Colorado River water into the Rio Grande Basin. Several cities, counties, pueblos and irrigation districts rely on the project for drinking water and agriculture.

The Bureau of Reclamation will pay $350,000 for the water. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District contributed $250,000 to the lease and the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission contributed $100,000.

“We are glad that we could rely on our solid partnerships with the State of New Mexico, District and Authority to reach this agreement for additional water to supplement flows in the Rio Grande in this difficult year,” said Jennifer Faler, Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area manager.

The lease will “supplement the water in the Rio Grande and help (agencies) meet their obligations under the biological opinion,” said Elizabeth Anderson, the water authority’s chief planning officer.

In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a new biological opinion regarding water management and endangered and threatened species such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Water agencies now manage the river to improve fish densities, but are not required to maintain certain river flow targets.

This year’s drought and minimal runoff have left water agencies scrambling to supply water to farmers and fish.

The MRGCD used 10,000 acre-feet from the water authority in June. The irrigation district had “repaid” that water to ABCWUA in late 2019 as a payment for a water loan from the early 2000s. But the district was forced to ask for the water payment back after running out of storage water.

Another release of stored water from El Vado Reservoir in July helped extend the irrigation season by nearly three months.

Now that water is gone, and river flows are again suffering from a lackluster monsoon season and above-average temperatures.

MRGCD Chief Engineer and CEO Mike Hamman confirmed that this lease of San Juan-Chama water is the “last block of water in the system.”

State Engineer John D’Antonio said the water will supply minnow habitat until early October.

“September is not good timing for the river to continue drying,” D’Antonio said at Thursday’s Interstate Stream Commission meeting.

Fish and Wildlife conducts fish density surveys in October to help determine health of the minnow in the Middle Rio Grande.

Under the lease, the water can be released from Abiquiu Reservoir through the end of 2022. Revenue from the lease will help fund the water authority’s program to plan for future water supply and demand.

The water authority has a contract with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior for about 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water each year – making it the largest user of the project.

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

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