The Canalization Project Reach of the Rio Grande runs 105 miles, extending from Caballo Dam in southern New Mexico to American Dam near El Paso, Texas. This area has been severely degraded by modifications to the stream channel and depletion of natural flows.
Water storage behind Elephant Butte Dam eliminates the entire river flow outside the irrigation season in most years; summer releases serve the predominant needs of irrigated crops but do little to support the needs of the riverine ecosystem. Extensive construction and maintenance of flood control levies, berms, and other infrastructure have also substantially altered sediment flows. These changes, together with flow modifications, have destroyed the once-abundant riparian habitats upon which many species of birds and other wildlife depend.
The listing of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher under the federal Endangered Species Act has drawn attention to degraded riparian habitat in the Canalization Project Reach. In 2009, the U.S. International Boundary and Waters Commission (USIBWC) established environmental restoration as a central goal for management of this important river corridor over the ensuing decade.
In September 2011, NFWF received funding from USIBWC in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish a Rio Grande Water Transactions Program. The primary goal of the program is to work cooperatively with local irrigation districts and willing sellers to acquire and lease water rights in order to restore and maintain more than 500 acres of riparian habitat at some 30 priority restoration sites throughout the Canalization Project Reach.
In November 2011 NFWF posted a request for proposals for local contractor support, and in early 2012 selected Audubon New Mexico as the best qualified local partner to spearhead development and implementation of the initial phase of the water transactions program. Since then, Audubon New Mexico has worked closely with NFWF program staff to develop the essential framework for voluntary water transactions. They consult closely with USIBWC, USFWS and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID). Efforts are ongoing to secure the voluntary cooperation of EBID’s downstream neighbor, the El Paso County Water Improvement District #1, in a variety of program development initiatives. USIBWC has also committed additional funds to NFWF to support the cooperation and involvement of both irrigation districts in these and related efforts.
Funding priorities for this program include:
- Creating an overall framework for the water transactions program;
- Working collaboratively to develop appropriate and necessary ESA assurances in exchange for the irrigation districts’ cooperation and voluntary commitments under the water transactions framework;
- Negotiating and completing an initial set of willing-seller transactions sufficient to meet priority restoration objectives, test key policy options, and provide for meaningful public involvement; and
- Buying and/or leasing enough water rights from willing sellers over a 10-year period to maintain annual flows for priority restoration sites and to mimic flood conditions once every few years.