U.S. Water News Online
ALBUQUERQUE -- The way to resolve water-wildlife issues
such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow case is not in court but in
places like a University of New Mexico legal research center, a UNM
Marilyn O'Leary, director of the UNM law school's Utton
Transboundary Resource Center, says ``preventive diplomacy'' can help
parties stay out of court.
``Litigation is not the best way to resolve these issues. It (the
minnow case) is too narrow. You don't have all the people at the
table and all the information that you need,'' she said. ``Legal
decisions are basically a snapshot in time based on laws and legal
claims we have today. When things change, we have to go back and try
to change a court decree, and that can be very difficult.''
However, John Horning, director of a group that frequently
litigates -- Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians -- says it's naive to
suppose environmental change could come about without litigation.
Forest Guardians notified the government in 1995, months after the
minnow was declared an endangered species, that it would sue over the
minnow and other protected species. That lawsuit, filed a year later,
aimed at grazing along streams in New Mexico.
O'Leary said past water compacts do not adequately address severe
drought and dwindling water supplies as lawyers look to scientists
for answers, and scientists look to lawyers.
The center is working with Sandia National Laboratories -- using a
water budget computer model, she said.
``We're not going to solve these water issues as individuals,''
she said in a statement. ``We need to look at not only what we want
but what is good for us all.''
Last fall, the Utton Center held its first national conference on
interstate surface and groundwater issues. It plans another
conference bringing in Indian tribes, irrigators, acequia groups,
cities and others.
More than 135 lawsuits have been filed in New Mexico since 1995 by
Forest Guardians and the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological
``Litigation is about demanding accountability,'' Horning said.
``Litigation is not a panacea, and it's not a perfect tool in all
instances, but it is a vital ingredient to catalyze agencies and
institutions that are reluctant to change,'' he said.
Change may be painful or uncomfortable, he said, but it's
generally better than the status quo.
He cited a report by economists Frank Ward from New Mexico State
University and James Booker from Siena University in New York state,
which projected benefits for agriculture, industry and other users.
``Economic benefits to New Mexico agriculture were estimated at
$68,000 per year,'' the study says.
Horning says the study suggests there are viable economic
alternatives in running the river at court-ordered flows in one
``In a world that recognizes the increasing preciousness of
water,'' Horning said, ``low-value, water-intensive crops are going
to take a hit. Our political leaders need to recognize that changes
in water allocation will benefit the regional economy.''
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