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Transparency a must in managing our rivers

A New Mexico judge recently enjoined New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission from conducting meetings regarding a proposed diversion project that would dam the last free-flowing river in New Mexico – the Gila River.

The suit demands transparency from the state as it makes critical decisions that impact not only water users in New Mexico, but also those whose livelihoods and quality of life depend on water flowing in our rivers and streams.

This culture of secrecy that plagues the Gila River Project permeates the culture of water management across New Mexico.

Historically, we know that decisions made behind closed doors perpetuate underlying inequities in our culture whether by disenfranchising women and minorities or harming the environment.

Archaic laws that govern how we allocate water between users and across political boundaries for extraction and use remain at the heart of such inequity. We bestow water “rights” upon farmers and cities and industry, with no counterpart for cottonwoods and frogs and fish.

A century of unbalanced management – compounded by our warming planet – has shifted the burden of scarcity entirely onto the shoulders of the river.

This problem intensifies in basins like the Rio Grande where over-allocation abounds. State and federal water managers struggle to provide any accountability when the scope of the existing water uses is unknown. Further, while the flexibility of a less rigid structure can provide opportunity, it also opens the door for abuse.

I spent the past several weeks trying to determine the status and fate of a significant amount of water being stored in upstream reservoirs on the Rio Chama. While it became clear that a deal is in the works for retaining some or all of that water to reallocate in the spring, secrecy surrounds how that water will be divided between competing demands.

Based on the historical power imbalance between the river and water users and the lack of transparency surrounding the decision, I maintain little faith that water managers will make a choice that benefits the river.

The lack of transparency around such decisions is especially problematic when it means that those actually advocating on behalf of the river are excluded from the very conversations that determine its fate.

In order to expose these problems and work toward lasting solutions, WildEarth Guardians filed suit this summer to ensure that injustices of the past will be reformed so that we can have a living river in the future.

A solution will entail:

  • Transparency by water mangers that leads to meaningful and fair engagement around important decisions that impact the health of our rivers. This must go beyond hollow process and provide an inclusive culture that levels the playing field and increases trust. This change should be a cornerstone of any path forward.
  • Reforming our out-of-date state and federal water laws to provide rivers with a right to their own water. Such flows will support important crown jewels throughout New Mexico – like America’s first wild and scenic river near Taos, the beloved and iconic bosque in Albuquerque, the Bosque del Apache near Socorro and, of course, the free-flowing Gila River in New Mexico. Flows will enhance our quality of life as well as the economy in these areas.
  • Defining the authorities of federal and state agencies to provide accountability and oversight of existing water uses that are currently running awry. Once the courts determine these issues, there will be less finger-pointing and more action and leadership.

Our collective heritage is tied to the river.

If we want to keep the Gila River wild and the Rio Grande a dynamic source of wonder, a new river management paradigm is essential.

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