An environmental group has filed a lawsuit in New Mexico charging irrigation water taken from the Rio Grande River over the last 80 years by the state's major central water district might not provide a substantial benefit, as required by law.
WildEarth Guardians of Santa Fe is challenging the New Mexico State Engineer to better monitor and manage the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District's use of water permits it currently receives and has received over the last 80 years to make certain water taken from the river meets minimum federal water laws.
Specifically, the lawsuit is charging that the water taken by the district to irrigate cropland in more than a 100-square mile area of Central New Mexico may not constitute a beneficial use of the natural resource as defined by law and therefore the original water permits issued by the state could be and possibly should be revoked.
The lawsuit represents the latest development in the Southwest's ongoing struggle with an ever-changing and drier climate and the rising demand for water by an expanding variety of users. It may also represent the first real lines being drawn on the sandy shores of the Rio Grande, dividing farmers and environmentalists into opposing camps as the region's water resources become more challenged by warmer temperatures, changes in annual precipitation and trending smaller snowpacks each winter, a task with the ultimate goal of determining how the water from the river is to be used and divided in the years ahead.
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Originating in Colorado, the Rio Grande is the fourth largest river system in the United States, traveling nearly 1,900 miles through New Mexico, and creating the 900-mile international border between Mexico and Texas before feeding into the Gulf of Mexico.
RIVER PROVIDES MANY BENEFITS
Farmers, communities and industry in both the U.S. and Mexico rely on the river's water for such diverse uses as drinking water, agriculture, and to sustain the environment across nearly 5,000 square miles of semi-arid land.
The task is a major project even for Mother Nature. In recent years drought has interrupted the continuous flow of the river as vast miles of riverbed have been transformed into slight trickles of water or a hot, parched and dry sandy bottom as the searing Southwestern sun suck the moisture from the riverbed.
In all, it has been estimated the river provides water to meet the needs of over six million people across the region and to irrigate as much as 3,200 square miles of productive farmland.
The demand for more water and a changing climate in recent years has caused a major shortage of water resources throughout the Southwest and has prompted water woes and wars between special water districts, state, tribal and federal authorities, and even cities and industry that depend on the life- sustaining river.
Last week the U.S. Interior Department issued its latest report, outlining many of the challenges that lay ahead for the depleted region's water resources. It warned of dry conditions, warmer-than-usual temperatures and smaller snowpacks in the years ahead, prompting members of WildEarth Guardians to take legal action in an attempt to force state and federal officials to demand the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) justify the water they have taken and distributed down through the years, and to replace water that may have been taken that did not constitute a beneficial use of the resource.
New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine said last week he is not aware of any unauthorized diversions from the river by the water district, and officials at the MRGCD have declined to comment on the lawsuit.
New Mexico farm groups have voiced mostly only quiet concern over the building water issues across the region. The district forced irrigation cutbacks in several recent years as a measure to conserve water, but a shortage of irrigation water caused many farmers to reduce acreage and forced many others to pump groundwater from wells in order to bring their crops to harvest, often with smaller yields and poorer crop quality.
FEAR OF SUMMER DROUGHT
Good summer and fall rains last year and the year before have helped to revitalize the chile, onion, pecan and alfalfa crops in New Mexico's south-central district but fear of a returning drought later this year has many producers worried. Some say another drought like in 2011 and 2012 would be devastating to the region's agriculture industry, and with growing water troubles associated with the Rio Grande, those problems could be greatly exacerbated.
The lawsuit filed last week represents only the latest threat to the right-to-farm across the American Southwest and brings into question whether long-standing senior water rights will remain adequate security for farmers who grow the region's and the nation's food and fiber.
But it's not the first time senior water rights have been challenged in recent times.
In neighboring Texas, senior water rights holders in the Texas Rice Belt have discovered what can happen to those rights once urbanized areas along the length of the Colorado River suffer serious water shortages during times of drought. Through emergency action taken by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), irrigation water from the Colorado River designated for use for food production and for waterfowl and wildlife protection was curtailed or cut off and remains so for a fourth consecutive year, causing many rice farmers to cut back acreage or in a few instances abandon successful rice operations within the state.
Farmers in New Mexico's Central Rio Grande Valley are now beginning to wonder if they could be the next water rights holders to fall victim to diminishing water resources in the face of rapid growth of urban areas and industry demand for water.
Whether drought returns to the Southwest to stay or not this year or in the years ahead, troubling challenges like lawsuits over water rights are going to continue to plague water users on every side of the issue of who owns the water and how it can be used for the generations to come.