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In a first of its kind water donation, the Pueblo of Sandia has donated water to be used for the benefit of river flows and riparian habitat. The transaction supports Audubon New Mexico’s conservation work to supplement streamflow in the Middle Rio Grande.
In a unanimous vote of their Tribal Council, Sandia stepped forward and offered 100 acre-feet of water for Audubon’s project. The Pueblo was not interested in financial compensation for their water, but rather, the act of dedicating water to the river, the lifeblood of the land, embodies the true value of the water for the Pueblo.
“The Rio Grande is sacred to the people of Sandia Pueblo, as is the environment it provides,” said Governor Isaac Lujan. “With ever increasing demands put on the river, Sandia offers this water as a dedication to the inherent value the river has to all people and the habitat it supports. Sandia hopes this donation can be used as an example of what can be done for the health of the river and the community when stakeholders work together.”
The donation by the Pueblo of Sandia is historic not only because this is the first time water has been donated to benefit the river, but also because it is the first environmental use of a large volume of water not being directed by federal or state agencies. Instead, the Pueblo water donation will be managed by Audubon and allocated to instream purposes, to assist with flows needed by fish and wildlife during times when some stretches of the river dry out in the summer.
The conservation project took root in May of this year when Audubon, funded by grants from Toyota TogetherGreen and Thornburg Foundation, hosted a roundtable of federal, state and local agencies, experts, and stakeholders to discuss ways to restore flows to help abate the declining health of the Middle Rio Grande, with a goal to implement a pilot program to dedicate additional water to environmental uses in 2016. The Pueblo of Sandia, having 100 acre-feet of water available for use in 2016, initiated the partnership with Audubon who offered to purchase or lease water rights to augment streamflow in an area of the Rio Grande regularly impacted by low flows and river drying.
The core of Audubon New Mexico’s Freshwater Conservation Program is the necessity of preserving nature’s share of water. This may not sound revolutionary, but requires a major shift in the traditional paradigm of water policy and operations in which water is primarily allocated for municipal and agricultural uses. Preserving water for wildlife and their habitat allows species to survive periods of drought and drying, which helps species already imperiled by low flows and reduces the likelihood of future listings under the Endangered Species Act. Restoration of flows is especially important to rivers like the Rio Grande, where 100% of water is allocated which often results in large stretches of the river going dry for days, weeks, or even months out of the year. Putting water back in rivers supports not only birds and wildlife but all who depend on this precious resource, including Pueblos, cities, and New Mexico’s outdoor recreation and tourism economy.
“This generous donation by the Pueblo of Sandia will help return life-sustaining water to a suffering river,” said Sharon Wirth, Freshwater Program Manager for Audubon New Mexico. “Audubon is focused on balancing water management to benefit people, wildlife and habitat, because after all, where birds thrive, people prosper.”
Moving forward, Audubon looks forward to working collaboratively with Sandia and other Pueblos, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and others involved in water operations in New Mexico to ensure that this water goes to the best environmental use in 2016.
Audubon New Mexico: As the state office of the National Audubon Society, Audubon New Mexico’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.