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Nearly 15,000 acre-feet of water is released from Navajo Reservoir into the San Juan River between June 13 and 15. The release is part of a first-of-its-kind agreement between the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the state of New Mexico. (Jerry Tensfield of the Bureau of Reclamation, Contributed)

Newborn Colorado pikeminnows and razorback suckers, two endangered fish species, are going to have an easier time growing up in the San Juan River thanks to a one-of-a-kind partnership using tribal water.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released nearly 15,000 acre-feet of water — equal to about 7,400 Olympic pools — from Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado-New Mexico border into the San Juan River in New Mexico. It’s the first release of a 10-year agreement to use water from the Jicarilla Apache Nation for ecological purposes or to assist with the state’s legal obligations to send water downstream to Arizona, California and Nevada. 

The agreement is the latest example of a tribal nation in the Colorado River Basin partnering with others to use water creatively as basin officials wrestle with a megadrought and unstable water supply. It’s also the first of its kind between the state of New Mexico and a tribal partner. 

“It’s an example to the broader basin, for sure, about problem-solving, and how mutual interests and agendas can be addressed if there’s just a willingness,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

For the next decade, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission can lease up to 20,000 acre-feet per year from the Nation and use it in the state’s strategic water reserve as part of the agreement developed by the commission, the tribe and The Nature Conservancy.

One acre-foot of water supports two families of four to five people for one year.

The state’s water reserve, which was created in 2005, can be used for two public purposes: complying with interstate river agreements or helping endangered species. 

“(The reserve) has been a really valuable tool for both a species and compact-compliance perspective across the state, but it’s never been implemented on this scale of something like 20,000 acre-feet a year,” said Hannah Riseley White, interim director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. “We see this as an excellent use of the reserve and something we hope we can build on elsewhere.”

On June 13, the Bureau of Reclamation added some of the leased water, 14,678 acre-feet, to a spring release timed to help clear the river of excess sediment and improve the habitat for Colorado pikeminnows and razorback suckers.

Water is released from Navajo Reservoir on the Colorado-New Mexico border. The release created a pulse flow that helped improve aquatic habitat for endangered fish species. (Provided by Brett Griffin, Bureau of Reclamation)

Spring high-flow events on the river are biological cues for the fish to reproduce and cast their eggs into the river, said Joe Trungale, freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program.

“In the first couple of weeks to months, they’re just floating, tiny, tiny, little fish,” he said. “Ideally, they’ll float into a very low-velocity, very calm backwater area where they can spend a couple of months getting bigger and growing stronger.”

Over time, dirt and sand can accumulate in the river, particularly after monsoon rains, forming sandbars and separating the backwater areas from the main channel.

This year’s large reservoir release mimics natural spring surges to cue the fish, and simultaneously improve river conditions so the young fish can find their much-needed habitat, Trungale said. 

In drier years, the goal is to boost the river’s base flow to between 500 and 700 cubic feet per second in order to maintain fish habitat. Experts will monitor how the flow rate changes the river’s elevation and connection to backwater areas, Trungale said.


Although the leased water is primarily intended for ecological or water-sharing compliance, the agreement was also a significant step between New Mexico and tribal nations. 

“There was a recognition from the state of New Mexico that they were entering into an agreement with another sovereign of equal parity,” Vigil said. “That had never been really done in the history of New Mexico that we could find.”

As the Colorado River’s water supply is threatened by overuse and 23 years of drought, other tribal nations are also leveraging their water in different ways. Earlier this year, the Gila River Indian Community, which holds some of the largest tribal water rights in Arizona, agreed to limit its water use and help buttress the declining water supply in Lake Mead in exchange for compensation.

This new agreement in New Mexico shows that officials can do more with less, said Celene Hawkins, Colorado River tribal partnerships program director at The Nature Conservancy. 

“As we’re looking for ways to meet the needs of people and nature in the system, this is one of the first agreements that is showing how we can do both at the same time,” she said. 

The negotiations and resulting agreement can be used as inspiration for similar deals in the future, said Riseley White of New Mexico.

The agreement also benefits the Jicarilla Apache Nation economically, Vigil said.

Companies that operated coal-fired power plants were the tribe’s largest lease-holders until the plants began shutting down. When that income source went away, the tribe turned to other options, like leasing to oil and gas companies, but those were only available on a smaller scale, he said.

Under this new agreement, the state of New Mexico will pay the tribe between $88 and $190 per acre-foot, depending on how much water is leased and the consumer price index. This year’s lease of 20,000 will boost the tribe’s economy by about $1.76 million.

Vigil said that income will help pay for tribal governance and the tribe’s portion of the Navajo-Gallup water supply project, which will provide a long-term, sustainable water supply for 250,000 people.

It also aligns with the Jicarilla Apache Nation’s cultural priorities and decades of work to support environmental recovery programs in the San Juan River, he said. 

“It was really huge. We couldn’t have done it without the financial, legal and technical resources of TNC and the state of New Mexico,” Vigil said. “It turned out to be something that solved a few different problems and then set up, hopefully, the solution process for the future.”

Shannon Mullane writes about Western water issues for The Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Catena Foundation. She focuses on the Colorado River Basin, tribal affairs related to water, and West Slope water issues.
Born in East Tennessee, Shannon has been in Colorado for a decade or so and is holding down the fort in Durango, the Sun's latest outpost. Before joining the Sun's team, she contributed award-winning reporting on government, environment, health and more as a staff writer for The Durango Herald and as an intern for the Colorado Independent. She also earned a master's in journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Shannon is conversational in French, trying really hard in Spanish, and often spotted baking or enjoying live music.