Federal water managers are considering a plan to reduce flows on the Rio Grande in Socorro County as early as this weekend, drying the river even as environmentalists are threatening a lawsuit over risks to the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow.
Later this summer, the plan would reduce flows through the Albuquerque reach of the river, as well.
Officials with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation say there is not enough water available this year, in the third year of extreme drought, to meet the current legal requirements for water for the minnow. In a series of letters last week local, state and federal officials asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s blessing for a plan to reduce flows in an effort to stretch limited supplies until the summer rainy season starts.
The bureau has been bolstering river flows with water imported from the Colorado River Basin via the San Juan-Chama project, but fears that the supply could run out entirely if it is not carefully marshaled through the summer. Key parts of the river would be kept wet to save small areas for surviving fish, while other areas would see reduced flows, or would be allowed to dry completely.
The goal, said Bureau of Reclamation Middle Rio Grande Project manager Leann Towne, is “to do the best for the species” with the limited amount of water available this year.
“All the participants feel like we’ve come up with a good slate of alternatives,” said David Gensler, water manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the valley’s farm water delivery agency.
Jen Pelz of the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians charged that the reduced flows mean extinction of minnows in the wild is “a clear possibility this summer.”
Pelz’s group filed a 60-day notice May 13 saying it intends to sue federal water managers over what the group charges is repeated failure to meet legal requirements to protect the minnow. The group charges that a decade of river mismanagement has contributed to the minnows’ plight, and that the plan to reduce flows now threatens the fish with extinction.
Pelz called steps being taken to protect the minnow this year “too little, too late.”
The WildEarth Guardians’ notice alleges repeated failures over the last decade to enforce rules laid down in 2003 to protect the minnow. The federal government declared the small fish endangered in 1994, triggering legal measures intended to protect species at risk, along with the ecosystems on which they depend.
Pelz argued that steps should have been taken sooner to bank water and create more flexible water management options to avoid problems like the river and the fish face today. In particular, Pelz and her colleagues have long called for the creation of a “water bank,” a system in which farmers could be paid to leave fields unplanted in order to free up flows for the river itself.
“We’re just trying to make the water managers think long term,” Pelz said, “to do things so that we don’t end up with a situation like this year.”
The 2003 rules require river managers to maintain a continuous flowing river for minnow habitat between Cochiti Dam and Elephant Butte Reservoir through June 15. After that, the rules allow managers to slowly dry the river, with teams rescuing stranded minnows and moving them upstream to places where the river still flows.
The rules also require minimum flows for the entire year through the Albuquerque reach of the Rio Grande, the final refuge for the remaining fish.
The water managers’ proposal asks the Fish and Wildlife Service’s blessing for a plan that allows river drying to begin sooner, and reduces the flow requirements through Albuquerque. That would allow the Bureau of Reclamation to stretch its limited supply to maximize the minnows’ chances, Towne said.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Charna Lefton said the agency is currently reviewing the plan, and expects to respond to the Bureau of Reclamation and the river’s other managers by Friday.