A River Runs Through It

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A look at the flowers and farms quickly proves that the lands around Tome, N.M. are in bloom.

But environmentalists wonder whether the greening of parts of the desert state is coming at the expense of nature, and now they are locked in a battle with farmers over the fate of the source of life in their area, their stretch of the Rio Grande.

"Agricultural interests divert 85 percent of the water," John Horning, of the Forest Guardians, said.

And that means there is less water for the Rio Grande silvery minnow, an endangered fish.

For farmer Ray Garcia, that’s not the only thing in danger.

"This is all endangered land," he said, standing among the green fields he relies on for his living.

The fish was once so abundant that it turned the river a silvery color, giving it its name. Now Horning and other environmental groups say the fish may die out because the water that it needs to live is being used to water crops.

Once the minnow coursed through 1,700 miles of the great river. Today, it can be found in only 70 miles of the Rio Grande.

"Our major fear is this, every other southwestern city has turned their river into a concrete ditch," Horning said. "What we are saying is that is the vision of the future that we don't want."

"The fate of the fish is inextricably linked to the fate of the river," he said.

The federal government agrees with Horning. It wants irrigators to take less water from the river so the fish will have more to live in.

But when the feds worked with state and local officials to come up with a compromise plan that would have created a habitat for the minnows without taking water rights from the farmers, the environmentalists blasted it as not going far enough.

"We feel like a compromise has been made for the last century and it's time to take a stand," Horning said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must first approve the plan. If it does, some environmentalists say they’ll be ready with a lawsuit.

The lawyer who represents the irrigation district of the middle Rio Grande Valley says the environmentalists are putting out a sham argument. What they want is to recreate an Eden that never really existed.

"Historically, the river was dryer than it is today," Chuck DuMars said. "They would like to see a wet river that replicates what they think happened before there were farmers, before there were dams."

And if that’s what Horning and the environmentalists want, they’re not going to get it without a fight, Garcia said.

"They can take it from us when they can pry it from our cold dead hands man, that's when they can have it," he said.

For now, spring runoffs have kept the river wet and swollen, but when the Rio Grande dries up, as it always does, the people of Tome can expect a deluge of legal action.