- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Environmentalists are challenging decades-old permits that allow one of New Mexico’s major irrigation districts to pull water from the Rio Grande, saying the district has failed to prove to state regulators that it’s putting the water to beneficial use.

The lawsuit filed in state district court in Santa Fe comes as federal officials warned Tuesday that climate change is expected to leave even less water in the river for municipalities, farmers and endangered species.

The Rio Grande stretches from southern Colorado, through New Mexico and Texas and down to Mexico. More than 6 million people in several major cities depend on it and it irrigates more than 3,100 square miles of farmland in the U.S. and Mexico.

Federal water managers over the last four years have tried to define current and future imbalances in supply and demand throughout the basin.

“The reliability of the Rio Grande to meet future needs in the study area is severely compromised by a growing gap between demand and availability and the potential for diminishing supplies due to climate change and competing uses,” researchers stated in a report released by the U.S. Interior Department.

They pointed to warmer temperatures, less precipitation and diminishing snowpack.

They also warned that low flows would become more frequent due to climate change.

In recent years, stretches of the river have gone dry in New Mexico and flows often don’t reach the Gulf of Mexico.

The flows are the focus of the legal challenge filed this week by WildEarth Guardians.

The environmental group claims the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District - which delivers irrigation water to more than 100 square miles of cropland in central New Mexico - has failed to prove to the state engineer’s office that the water being diverting under permits issued more than 80 years ago is being put to beneficial use.

Under state law, the state engineer has a duty to require a user to submit that proof if the permit is to stand.

WildEarth Guardians said the state engineer’s office has effectively given the irrigation district a blank water check for decades and that the river’s health is being compromised. The group wants to free up more water within the system so it can be used to boost flows.

“The district does not have any right, let alone an inalienable right, to control the entire flow of the Rio Grande,” said Jen Pelz, director of the group’s wild rivers program.

District officials declined to comment on the legal challenge but said they’ve been working with regulators for years without any accounting issues.

State Engineer Tom Blaine said he was unaware of any unauthorized diversions by the district.

The lawsuit is just the latest fight over the Rio Grande. Texas and New Mexico are locked in a battle before the U.S. Supreme Court over management of the river and groundwater pumping near the state line.

According to the federal report, supplies in the Upper Rio Grande are expected to decrease over the course of the 21st century by one-fourth in Colorado and one-third in New Mexico.

In the lower reaches, researchers estimate population growth and climate change will leave the region with a shortage of more than 675,000 acre-feet a year, or more than 600 million gallons per day.

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