Dr. William M. Turner
The inexorable demand for water by people in the West for swimming pools, lush lawns on desert land, car washes, agriculture, and industry is drying up our rivers and streams much to the consternation of environmentalists, federal regulators, and those who want gurgling surface water to enhance their quality of life.
To ensure cool, pleasant riparian environments and bosques, there is a movement in the west for state legislatures to enact legislation that would guarantee permanent flow in rivers. At a time when the surface flow of rivers is highly regulated and over appropriated, any in-stream flow must come from the retirement of existing surface water rights. While the continuous flow of rivers will add to the quality of our life in an arid environment, it will also lead to irreversible changes in our quality of life as we presently know it.
For example, along the Rio Grande corridor in New Mexico, all New Mexicans enjoy the agricultural way of life and the pastoral environment. The passage of in-stream flow legislation may mean that some water must flow continuously in the river and the amount of irrigated acreage must drop thereby putting farmers out of business and changing our environment.
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) which distributes Rio Grande Basin water to more than 67,000 acres of farmland in the Middle Rio Grande between Cochiti Reservoir and Elephant Butte Reservoir will feel challenged by in-stream flow legislation. Employees of the MRGCD and many earthmoving contractors and their employees derive their income from taxes and fees collected for the delivery of water. Reduction in irrigated acreage will place higher tax burdens on water users and the general public to maintain current staff levels. The public, already overburdened in New Mexico by taxes, and already very unhappy at MRGCD taxes will certainly demand staff reductions.
In-stream flow legislation also threatens every owner of water rights because, in an attempt to forestall confrontation with the MRGCD and agricultural interests, the State Engineer will begin a process of actively voiding water rights that have not been placed to beneficial use for a number of years. This action is politically fraught with difficulty for the State Engineer and any governor who supports this activity. In a state where "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting" such attempts can, in fact, be hazardous to one's health. Old acequias throughout New Mexico, whose origins are lost in the history of the Al Moravid Confederation, will be threatened with loss of water rights. Many of the communities of New Mexico that depend on acequias and their water exist within subsistence economies. To lose their water rights means the death of the community. Acequia associations will be powerful foes of in-stream flow legislation.
But just as there are powerful foes of in-stream flow legislation, there are powerful advocates including the federal government, with their mandate under the Endangered Species act, and many environmental groups. Certainly, in-stream flow legislation will affect the value of water.