Feds join forces on Rio Grande cleanup, restoration

Posted: May 21, 2013

Written by

April Reese, Greenwire
Rio Grande River

It's usually the Rio Grande's waning flow that gets the most attention from environmentalists and regulators, but water quality is also a big problem, officials made clear at a pair of meetings here yesterday.

At an afternoon event along an urbanized stretch of the Middle Rio Grande here, regional directors of U.S. EPA and the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with other federal officials and local community leaders, announced a new partnership aimed at addressing water quality, the riparian ecosystem and the local economy all at the same time.

The partnership is linking various efforts to revive the beleaguered urban river and the community around it, officials said. Specifically, it ties together the new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, a project to restore the Middle Rio Grande, a local redevelopment plan for a road corridor that crosses the river, and a new federal stormwater permit for the city and other entities in the watershed.

When the new refuge opens -- its manager, Jennifer Owen-White, who just arrived last week -- it will be managed with input from residents and will provide ample opportunities for environmental education and recreation, officials said.

"We want to be part of the community," said Benjamin Tuggle, FWS's Southwest regional director, in an interview after the announcement. "We don't want to be an island of conservation."

At the same time, the new stormwater permit, which is now in draft form and undergoing public review, will help ensure the water flowing through the riparian corridor is increasingly cleaner, said Ron Curry, director of EPA's Region 6, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

"Anytime you can incorporate all of these things and manage the water in a better way, that's doing a good thing," Curry said in an interview.

The Middle Rio Grande is one of 11 new sites in EPA's Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Among the other additions are the Grand River in Grand Rapids, Mich.; the Green-Duwamish River in Seattle; and the Mystic River in Boston.

Richard Moore of Los Jardines Institute, an Albuquerque organization that promotes environmental justice and community-based agriculture, commended the agencies for including the community in the initiative.

"We consider this an environmental justice issue," Moore said. "It's important that the community is engaged. This is a perfect opportunity to do this right and do it together."

Tuggle said that with little water in the Rio Grande this year, the participating agencies -- which also include the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation -- have a strong incentive to work together to improve management of the river. And a healthier river will attract more visitors to the refuge and neighborhoods along the riparian corridor, which hopefully will provide a much-needed boost to the local economy, he added.

Curry, who headed the New Mexico Environment Department under former Gov. Bill Richardson (D), acknowledged that getting so many agencies to work together can be difficult. But the Urban Waters approach to inter-agency collaboration is working well, he said.

"We have too many people who are influential going in the right direction for it not to be successful," he said. "There's a lot of consensus."

Moore agreed. "In all honesty, I think we can pull this off," he said.

Hearing on stormwater permit

Later, at a public hearing across town on the draft stormwater permit, residents, homebuilders, conservationists and others offered differing opinions on the proposal.

Under the permit, properties such as colleges and construction sites that send significant amounts of polluted runoff into the Rio Grande during storms would be required to take steps to address the problem. Those could include replacing asphalt with pavement that allows water to seep into the ground, which also recharges groundwater, or planting vegetation.

The permit would replace one that expired last July and expand its scope to include more entities that produce polluted storm runoff. While that list has yet to be finalized, it could include the neighboring towns of Bernalillo and Rio Rancho, several counties in the Greater Albuquerque area, Sandia National Laboratory, and three pueblos -- Sandia, Isleta and Santa Ana.

Conservation groups say strong requirements are needed to help improve water quality in the Rio Grande. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), low dissolved oxygen levels and higher-than-normal temperatures continue to be problems, according to EPA, and the draft permit includes requirements that target them.

"The city has been dragging its feet," said Michael Jensen of Amigos Bravos, a river advocacy group, adding that a lack of resources is part of the problem. "The people in the upper levels of city government aren't taking it seriously."

No one from the city testified at the hearing, which drew about 40 attendees. Four of them provided oral testimony.

Ron Bohannan of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties questioned the need for the permit -- and EPA's authority to issue it.

"We believe EPA has exceeded its jurisdiction in issuing this permit," he told EPA attorney David Gillespie, who presided over the hearing. "The Clean Water Act regulates pollutants, and stormwater isn't a pollutant."

EPA began pressing Albuquerque, home to about 500,000 people, to clean up and better manage its stormwater runoff after a series of Clean Water Act violations in recent years.

Like many urban areas, as the city has grown, more land has been paved, increasing runoff that can carry oil, trash and other pollution into the river.

If things don't improve under the new permit, Albuquerque could find itself facing more draconian measures, as Dallas did after initially failing to clean up its stormwater runoff, Jensen suggested.

"This river is not fishable, it's not swimmable," he said. "Those two things are hazardous to your health. We need to deal with them."

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