U.S. Water News Online
DENVER -- A federal agency's report has confirmed
Colorado's claim that the El Paso Water District in Texas wasted
billions of gallons of Rio Grande irrigation water early this
Last April, Colorado water engineers accused El Paso (Texas) Water
Improvement District No. 1 of prematurely ordering and then wasting
so much Rio Grande water from upstream storage in January and
February that it prevented New Mexico's at-capacity Elephant Butte
Reservoir from spilling over its rim.
Under a 58-year-old treaty among the three states, an overflow
would have erased for the rest of the year Colorado's and New
Mexico's legal obligation to send more water downriver to Texas.
One key issue in the dispute concerns El Paso's changing water use
patterns from agriculture to homes and businesses in this booming
urban center. Colorado water users worry that a growing, year-round
demand downstream from El Paso's urban taps -- rather than the
seasonal ups and downs of the farms that urban growth is supplanting
-- will rob the state of a significant treaty benefit.
Colorado's ability to keep and use more Rio Grande water in
"spill" years could evaporate, they argue, because metropolitan El
Paso's year-round thirst might often keep Elephant Butte from topping
out. What's more, if the 8.6-trillion-gallon reservoir falls below
130.4 billion gallons -- 15 percent of capacity -- upstream Colorado
dams built since the 1938 compact can't store water.
Colorado took its case to the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which
allocates the river's water according to the treaty. But when
Colorado commissioner and state engineer Hal Simpson proposed at the
annual meeting that the panel declare an official "spill" had
occurred, Texas commissioner Jack Hammond voted no, killing the
A month later, commission chairman and federal representative Ken
Salazar of Denver asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built
and manages the Rio Grande Project, to look into the matter.
The Bureau's El Paso field office subsequently reported that only
17.3 percent of the more than 4.6 billion gallons of Rio Grande water
sent to the El Paso irrigation system in January and early February
went to farms. The rest was dumped unused into the river
The carefully worded document didn't accuse the El Paso district
of wasting water, but said only that delivery records "indicate a low
efficiency of less than 20 percent of diverted water reaching the
Steve Vandiver of Alamosa, the state engineer who blew the
whistle, claimed the report supports his contention that "there was
way more water in the system than there was demand."
The Bureau of Reclamation has refused to take sides. citing
efficiency as their main concern. "That's the issue for us," said
Bill Rohwer, deputy area manager in Albuquerque. "Efficiency, and
whether or not the water is delivered to project lands."
Without a resolution, the three states could end up keeping dual
sets of records about their Rio Grande water use. Since Colorado and
New Mexico believe Elephant Butte would have overflowed this year,
their books wouldn't show any debt for 1996. But Texas' accounting
would, especially if dry conditions persist and the two upstream
states don't deliver amounts for a non-spill year.
Under the river pact, Colorado and New Mexico can go into debt up to 100,000 and 200,000 acre feet of water, respectively -- 31.6 billion to 65.2 billion gallons -- before Texas can demand repayment. So a lawsuit over 1996 "debt" could be years off.
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