Who Owns the Water in a River?
Battle Brews Over Rio Grande Water
Here are some excerpts from a recent article published in Newsday and circulated by the Grassroots Media Network.
by Sue Major HolmesThe Rio Grande is drying up in drought-stricken New Mexico, putting an endangered fish and the water supply of the state's largest city in jeopardy.
Citizens who care about the environment want a federal judge to release water owned by Albuquerque into the Rio Grande to prevent the river from going dry in an area where the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow lives.
The targeted water would come from Heron Lake in northern New Mexico -- water that Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez contends would come "from the mouths of our children."
U.S. District Judge James Parker has scheduled a hearing -- it is one of several battles over water rights that is playing out this year in the parched West.
River flows and reservoir supplies are at record lows because of drought. Cities throughout New Mexico have restricted water use, and the state's five national forests shut down for a month because of extreme fire danger.
The minnow's numbers have been dropping for many years. In 1994, the federal government listed the 3-inch minnow, once the most plentiful fish in the Rio Grande, as endangered; the state listed it in 1996.
Alletta Belin, an attorney for environmentally concerned citizens, said she was concerned about a decision to keep water stored for next year, when conditions for the fish could be even worse.
"It doesn't make any difference if you have water for tomorrow if you're [extinct] tomorrow," Belin said.
State Engineer Tom Turney says most of the water in northern New Mexico reservoirs is "owned" by Albuquerque, Santa Fe and irrigation districts.
Without releases of water stored upstream, the Rio Grande likely will go dry near Albuquerque in a week or two, both sides agree. After that, flows in the river would consist of sewage treatment plant outflow released by the city.
Western water law is based on the notion of prior appropriations -- the idea that those who started using water first always have the right to use it first.
[The Progress Report points out that this is an absurd idea. But if it is enforced, then the minnows, which used the water first, would have the most rights to it. Of course a team of fancy judges will agree that the idea actually applies only to white humans, not to fish, nor other animals, nor Native Americans.]
"No one wants to see a direct conflict between the Endangered Species Act and anyone's rights to water," said Fort, former New Mexico Secretary of the Environment Department.
In general, the federal government buys water for species and pays owners in cases of direct conflict, she said.
But in the case of the silvery minnow, the disagreement is over the water's ownership.
More on humanity's Common Assets
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