SANTA FE, N.M. -- Santa Fe County, seeking additional water to serve developments south of Santa Fe, wants to buy 1,200 acre-feet of Rio Grande water rights from a farm near the Colorado border. The price: $1.2 million.
The money would come from property taxes. Voters last November approved a general obligation bond that includes $4 million for water projects.
The county has asked the state engineer for permission to use the rights in order to draw up to 588 acre-feet, nearly 200 million gallons of water, out of the Rio Grande. The city and county hope eventually to begin diverting water directly from the river at a point upstream on San Ildefonso Pueblo land.
The county's bid to deliver additional river water through its own utility lines is part of a shift away from relying on groundwater, which hydrologists said is being depleted. Many environmentalists applaud the move toward using surface water.
"Planners are recognizing that aquifers should be used primarily for water storage for emergencies and times of drought and that surface water should be the primary source," said Doug Wolf, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.
But some conservation groups worry that cities and counties eventually will come to rely too heavily on the river, diminishing its flow and harming habitat for endangered species. The cumulative effect of cities' and counties' long-term plans to divert the Rio Grande would amount to "taking a small mountain stream's worth of water out of the Rio Grande," said Brian Shields of Amigos Bravos, a Taos-based environmental group. "It would be a major loss to the river," he said.
The rights from the Top of the World farm would represent a doubling of the amount of water in the county's water bank. But, compared to other potential diversions, the county's proposal is relatively small.
Albuquerque claims rights to 55,000 acre-feet of imported San Juan-Chama water. And the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, a group of farmers in central New Mexico, is claiming rights to 300,000 acre-feet of imported water. "If all that water is diverted, we're not going to have a river," Shields said.
But water planners said the Rio Grande already is a highly managed system and that imported San Juan-Chama water is stored at Abiquiu Lake and that it doesn't go down the river unless it has been allocated for a specific use.
Some Santa Feans also are concerned that imported water could hasten growth and sprawl around Santa Fe. "One of the questions we have is whether the county's new water rights will service new developments or existing traditional communities," said Judy Stevens, a policy analyst with the Land Use Resource Center. County Commissioner Javier Gonzales said new developers will be required to bring their own water rights to the table when seeking approval for projects.
The town of Taos previously tried to acquire 4,200 acre-feet of water rights from the Top of the World farm. The town had hoped to use the rights to pump new wells but gave up on the idea after other groundwater users in the area filed protests, said Gus Cordova, Taos town manager. "It was just too complicated, so we dropped it," he said. "We don't have the resources to be able to compete for it."
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