While concerns over a lack of surface irrigation water run high among farmers in south central New Mexico, conservationists and wildlife groups are breathing a little easier after federal officials announced this week they plan to maintain a continuous flow of water in the middle Rio Grande River, at least until mid-June.

Bureau of Reclamation officials and representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released details of their annual operating plan April 23 in Albuquerque, which indicates the federal agencies will do all they can to maintain continuous flow in stretches of the river in an effort to "better serve the environment and ecology of the region."

Federal engineers plan on releasing supplemental water currently stored in reservoirs upstream to help keep the water flowing in the river. They told reporters any added surge to the flowing river would be a benefit, but warned they may need to resort to a secondary supplement, depending on the weather, specifically how much rain may fall in the weeks ahead.

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If late spring rains fail to provide any significant relief, BOR is keeping the door open on a backup plan that calls for additional pulse releases of upstream water that could benefit the spawning season of the endangered silvery minnow.

Concern for minnow

Concern over the fate of the silvery minnow surfaced a little over a year ago when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services fall census failed to turn up any numbers for the endangered species. Expanding the census into a full-fledge search, wildlife officials did find small numbers of the minnow in scattered locations along the river and in Elephant Butte Reservoir.

The incident incited an outpouring of concern from wildlife officials and wildlife support groups, but federal officials said the continuing drought and an escalating human demand for water resources were taxing officials to budget enough water to meet every need.

Complicating the issue, early last year federal agencies had to deal with an expiring 10-year plan for managing the river under terms of the Endangered Species Act. Federal planners admit the issue of saving the minnow versus diverting all available water resources to cities and farmers has divided water users and conservationists and has made their job more difficult.

But after a meeting last fall where federal, state and local water planners developed a list of possible strategies to address the minnow problem, BOR and the Corps of Engineers decided they would take on the task of tackling the water needs of both humans and wildlife.

BOR officials argued that if the endangered minnow population were allowed to decline, other forms of wildlife, like larger fish and native and migrating birds that depend on them, would also suffer and perhaps face a similar fate in the future.

 

Critics fear the fed's intent to address both the needs of the minnow and the needs of cities and farmers who depend on the river's water may be asking too much of the water-depleted environment. If the rains are stingy again this summer, as they have been for the last three years, water managers see little chance the of enough water to go around.

Hoping for rain

But engineers and BOR officials this week say they believe they can achieve their objective at least until mid-June and hope substantial rains will return when the monsoon season starts in July. Federal officials reiterated this week their intent to find ways to keep the endangered minnow species alive and encourage its recovery, even while providing as much water as required to cities and farmers.

Farmers and irrigation district officials along the river's midsection, however, say they are already planning on another year of irrigation curtailments. Many will turn again to groundwater pumping to supplement irrigation systems that generally rely on surface water from the irrigation canals that connect farm country to the river or to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

 

But a case before the Supreme Court brought about by legal action instituted by the State of Texas claims groundwater pumping by New Mexico famers in the mid-basin area is depleting river water that belongs to Texas. If the High Court's Justices were to rule in favor of that lawsuit, it could further complicate water problems for mid-basin farmers.

As one engineer explained at the Albuquerque meeting this week, "the only real solution is for the rains to return."