Dr. William M. Turner
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973 by Congress. It is now producing new demands for scarce western water resources that will certainly affect the cost of water for all users. The enforcement of the ESA is most complicated and far reaching when applied to habitat and species that rely on water. The ESA is already adding volatility to public policy.
Constructed water projects always affect the natural environment and species habitat. In the West, constructed water projects of one sort or another have been going on for decades. The most recent proposed project is the Animas-La Plata Project which Congress promised years ago to ensure the Southern Ute Tribe of Utah their fair share of San Juan River water. This project is running into rough sledding because we now know that such projects can unalterably affect habitat and threaten certain species of plants and animals. We were not as wise in the past and people came to rely on the "benefits" of the constructed projects. So much so that any alteration in the operation of the projects, can directly threaten the livelihood of people who now make their life from the projects.
Rivers and streams have been impounded and diverted for agricultural, recreational, electrical power generation and domestic water supply purposes with no regard for the impact on the environment. The filing of swimming pools and the watering of lush, verdant landscapes has been a major regional activity for many years in the West. Many of these construction projects have been funded with federal dollars and are wrapped in layers of federal laws and regulations which protect the federal investment until the federal government is paid off. Many projects are reluctant to pay of the federal debt because the conflict between federal and state law allows project administrators to use whatever legal framework is to their advantage.
About 60 percent of the animals on the national threatened or endangered species list are either totally aquatic or need an aquatic ecosystem to complete their life cycle. In Arizona 27 fish and 11 amphibians are of special concern. Of threatened animals in Arizona four mammals and 25 of the 42 listed birds are found primarily in riparian habitat.
In New Mexico along the Rio Grande, the silvery minnow and the willow flycatcher are endangered species that depend on the aquatic and riparian habitat.
Because rivers of the West commonly flow through several states, individual states may be helpless to control river flows to protect endangered species. Furthermore, the irregular flow of rivers adds to the problem of maintaining viable habitat. River flow is administered under interstate stream compacts that were put in place when there was a poor understanding of the hydrological cycle in the western river basins and incomplete information. They were put in place at a time when water needs were modest and presently endangered species were not seriously threatened. Now that water use is up interstate stream commissions find themselves unable or unwilling to cope with the 1000-pound environmental gorilla.
Maintaining instream flows to protect endangered species will require drastic changes in the administration of water which will adversely impact many lives. For example, in New Mexico, the City of Albuquerque stores 200,000 acre feet of its Upper Colorado River (San Juan/Chama) water in Abiquiu Reservoir where a great deal evaporates. The water storage was authorized to hold the San Juan-Chama water until Albuquerque needs it. Albuquerque can't take delivery of the water until at least 2006 and Abiquiu Reservoir cannot physically hold all of the San Juan-Chama water. In the West, the courts have held that water cannot be wasted and the evaporation of water from Abiquiu Reservoir can hardly be justified in the face of water shortages on the Rio Grande caused by drought and essentially unmeasured diversion by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District for irrigation. It is clear that in the future, channel and off-channel storage of water will be curtailed as downstream demand and in-stream flow requirements for the protection of endangered species increases. This will put people who depend on water recreation and fishing out of business in favor of farmers and endangered species.
To protect the economic livelihood of those who do depend on the recreational use of water, water rights on the Rio Grande must be purchased and retired to provide instream flow to protect the silvery minnow. In an attempt to forestall the day when the piper must be paid, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District filed applications to drill five water wells in the lower part of its service area. The idea was to pump ground water into the river rather than curtailing agricultural uses of water. This application was protested for many different reasons one of which was that because the ground water ultimately flows into the river it is actually the surface water which will be used. The protest has yet to be heard but the use of ground water for the silvery minnow has been blocked for the moment.