ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An agreement approved by the Elephant Butte Irrigation District lets farmers sell water rights so the water can be used to help grow riverside vegetation such as cottonwoods and Goodding’s willows.
The Albuquerque Journal reports (http://bit.ly/13ffLkk) that the deal is the largest New Mexico example to date of a growing effort across the western United States to reclaim water for riverside environments.
Under the agreement, the International Boundary and Water Commission — the federal agency responsible for maintaining the Rio Grande channel between Percha Dam in the Hatch Valley and the Rio Grande’s water delivery point in Mexico — will buy enough water from farmers to irrigate up to 500 acres of Rio Grande riverside habitat.
The water will support planting of cottonwoods, willows and other native vegetation that have long been absent from a stretch of river channel between flood control levees that has primarily been used as a water delivery channel for decades.
“As the water supplies decrease, shifting some water back to nature will be needed to keep the riverside habitats alive and healthy,” Beth Bardwell of the Audubon Society said.
Gary Esslinger, manager of the irrigation district, said the farmers who serve on the district’s board believed the water in question had been appropriated for agriculture. “I had to convince my board that if we didn’t start dealing with this, someone was going to take our water,” Esslinger said.
Already, within a month of the irrigation district board’s approval, discussions with two farmers about the possible sale of their water are underway, Esslinger said.
It is the second New Mexico example of a transfer from agriculture to provide environmental water.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has been buying water during dry years since 2004 from the Fort Sumner Irrigation District to maintain flows in the Pecos River for the endangered bluntnose shiner, said Mike Hamman, manager of the bureau’s Albuquerque office.
There are also conversations underway about a similar program in the farm water system between Cochiti Reservoir and Socorro managed by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, though early discussions suggest it will not be easy.