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          Front Page

Group Challenging City's Plans To Use River Water

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
          You will begin drinking, showering and watering your lawn with water from the Rio Grande soon, and there will be less water in the river as a result.
        What effect that will have on the Rio Grande, the ecosystem surrounding it and the state's long-term water supply picture remains the subject of heated debate.
        Officials in charge of the project say the effect on the river will be minimal.
        "I don't think you'll notice," said John Stomp, who oversees the drinking water project for the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.
        Critics are not so sure.
        "They're trying to minimize the appearance of an impact to the river," said Steve Harris of Rio Grande Restoration, a group dedicated to preserving the river's ecosystem, which is still in court fighting the project.
        In an average year, nearly 10 percent of the Rio Grande's flow will be diverted at the water utility's new dam, just south of Alameda on Albuquerque's north side. Once area residents are finished using it, half of that water — the half that goes down the city's toilets and drains — will re-enter the river 13 miles downstream, after it is cleaned up at Albuquerque's sewage treatment plant.
        University of New Mexico engineering professor Julie Coonrod calculates that the water project's withdrawals will reduce the river level 3 inches during average flows.
        Stomp points out that half of the water being diverted would not be in the Rio Grande in the first place were it not for the drinking water project. Since the 1970s, the city has paid to shunt the water from tributaries of the San Juan River through a tunnel beneath the continental divide and into the Chama River, where it eventually flows into the Rio Grande.
        The San Juan-Chama Project, as it is known, diverts a portion of New Mexico's share of the Colorado River so that it can be used in the Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico's most populous region.
        In the years since, the water has been sold to irrigators or to the federal government to meet the needs of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Beginning Friday, the water utility began diverting some of the water into Albuquerque's drinking system.
        To avoid the most serious effects of the project, the water authority has agreed to stop taking water out of the Rio Grande during extreme drought conditions, leaving enough in the river to meet requirements for continuous flows for the silvery minnow, said Jennifer Norris, coordinator of endangered species programs for the Albuquerque office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
        Harris agrees that the effect on the river will be minimal most of the time. "Under normal, average river flow conditions, the impact is small," he said. But he complains that there will be subtle effects that could cause long-term problems.
        Harris points out that for most of the last three decades, the extra water shipped through the tunnel and into the Rio Grande from the Colorado River Basin has been used to meet other needs along the long, green valley that slices down the center of New Mexico.
        Before the acquisition of that extra water, according to Harris, the state of New Mexico chronically failed to meet its legal obligations to deliver water down the Rio Grande to Texas. "In 1974," Harris said, "our compliance improved dramatically."
        In addition, Harris argues that the extra water in the Rio Grande since the mid-1970s has changed the ecosystem, encouraging the growth of more Russian olive, salt cedar and other plants that suck water from the river.
        In essence, Harris argues, the city's San Juan-Chama project water has been used to subsidize the river system for more than three decades, and he wonders what will happen when that subsidy is taken away, removed from the river system and consumed by Albuquerque residents instead.
        "The San Juan-Chama water has been the thing that has kept this river whole," Harris said.
        In their lawsuit, Harris and a coalition of groups charge that, among other things, downstream irrigators may end up dry under certain conditions when water is removed from the river for city use.
        Stomp and other project backers disagree, saying the project's state permit ensures that downstream users' water rights will not be impaired.
        The project's supporters say use of San Juan-Chama water is the only way to wean Albuquerque from today's insustainable groundwater pumping.
        Harris acknowledged that only time will tell who is right about the impacts on the river.
        Whether use of river water is a good idea or not, though, cities along the Rio Grande need to recognize that our water supplies are limited, noted Santa Fe water policy analyst Consuelo Bokum. "If we don't pursue conservation," Bokum said, "we're stupid."