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Chavez Shepherds Project to Bring N.M. Cities Water

Water Became a Defining Issue in Chavez's Senate Career
Water Became a Defining Issue in Chavez's Senate Career by Center for Southwest Research, UNM
Chavez championed water legislation that would guarantee water for the Rio Grande corridor of New ...
The City of Albuquerque, whose aquifer was long thought to be "the size of Lake Superior," acknowledged in 1994 that ground water was not nearly as plentiful as originally imagined. Senator Chavez and others, in the 1950s, initiated the current San Juan-Chama transmountain diversion project, anticipating current growth and drought conditions. Because of their efforts, water from west of the Continental Divide began flowing down the Rio Grande in the 1970s. The City of Albuquerque began using some of the water for parks last year. In 2004, construction began on a drinking water treatment plant to purify the water for household use.


This history of the water project is long.  In 1901, surveyor Jay Turley concluded that more water existed in the San Juan River Basin than could be realistically used in the Four Corners area. His desire to use the water to irrigate approximately 1.3 million acres, however, conflicted with Native American claims to the water, and Federal authorities would dismiss the project. A court decision in 1908 would reaffirm the tribal claims.


Almost 30 years later, a number of Federal committees began looking into the development of the San Juan Basin. A 1936 survey resulted in the "San Juan Diversion Project" prepared by the Rio Grande-San Juan Water League. The proposal outlined a project which suggested that authorities, "divert in the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico, approximately 340,000 acre feet of water from the San Juan Basin in Colorado and New Mexico, by means of transmountain canal…over the Colorado-New Mexico state line and continental divide into the Rio Grande Valley." Work on the San Juan Diversion Project would have been completed by January 1, 1939 at a total cost of $7.5 million.  The project was delayed until tribal claims were addressed in 1939.  By then, the study was outdated and the proposal was stalled until after World War II.


While the country focused its attention on the war, Senator Chavez would not forget the project. His office maintained records on the project and started new legislation that would combine Native American claims with other New Mexico water supply projects. With Senator Chavez, Chair of the Public Works Committee, as its shepherd, the legislation had a promising future. In the 1950s, Senator Chavez reintroduced the project.


His office would make it one of the Senator's major initiatives, at one point writing 234 personalized letters to U.S. senators and representatives requesting support for the diversion. California senators and representatives were reluctant to support the plan, but over their objections Senator Chavez and the rest of the N.M.'s delegation proposed a successful bill in 1958. President Kennedy signed it in 1961.


Today, Albuquerque is pumping the water diverted from the basin for non-potable purposes and will start delivering purified drinking water to residents by 2008. The San Juan-Chama Diversion Project supplements the city's aquifer and meets growth needs until 2060, almost 100 years after the project was first signed into law.


Sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Reclamation; City of Albuquerque, Water Utility Authority.

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