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Suit seeks change in the State Engineer Policy
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The City of Rio Rancho is continuing its effort to move water from central New Mexico farms in Valencia and Socorro counties to satisfy its growing demand by filing four water transfer applications with the State Engineer. WildEarth Guardians challenged all four of the City’s new applications to ensure that the transfers will not impact Rio Grande flows or damage the public welfare.
“Water is a public resource that the State Engineer is charged with protecting,” said Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, Senior Staff Attorney at WildEarth Guardians. “These four transfers must be scrutinized to ensure no harm to Rio Grande flows in location, timing, and amount.”
The four applications were publicly noticed in the Rio Rancho Observer in September. The four new applications are in addition to an application filed by the City earlier this year seeking to discontinue use of water from irrigation on a farm in Socorro County within the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and transfer that water upstream to the City to offset the impacts of its well field on the Rio Grande in Sandoval County. The City concedes that it does not currently need the water or the water from the new applications as it plans to lease it back to the farmers for a number of years.
The total amount of water the City is seeking to transfer pursuant to the five water transfer applications it filed this year is 773 acre-feet of farm delivery requirement (541 acre-feet of consumptive use). An acre-foot is equivalent to about 326,000 gallons of water (or enough water to supply demands of two families’ home and landscape needs for a year).
Guardians’ protests highlight how the City’s proposed water transfer will reduce flows in 50-100 miles of the Rio Grande and change the location, amount, and timing of return flows that contribute water back to the river. The potential change to flows in the river is significant given the importance of the middle valley as vital habitat for endangered fish, wildlife, and plants. Further, the change in return flows reaching the river system near Socorro will impact the water supply of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the health of the river in that reach, and the ability of the State to meet its delivery obligation to Texas under the Rio Grande Compact.
“At a time when there is not a drop to spare, every water transfer impacts flows in the river,” added Jen Pelz, the Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians and recently named Rio Grande Waterkeeper. “New Mexico has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure that these transfers are not on the back of the river and the time is now to change the way it looks at these seemingly minor, but collectively significant transfers.”
The group is also concerned that the transfer could lead to additional depletions to the river by creating a use of water that did not previously exist. In past transfers, the State Engineer has approved the sale and transfer of agricultural water to upstream municipalities without requiring dry up of the associated farmland. Such a restriction would ensure that transferred water is only being used at its changed location for the new purpose. Instead, those same farmers are currently allowed to lease water from the District’s so-called “Water Bank” to continue to irrigate the move-from property despite the likely new depletions caused by the duplicate use.