By Richard Parker
EL PASO — One of North America’s great rivers is dying.
Stretching nearly 1,900 miles from the Colorado Rockies to the salty Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande has been the stuff of Southwestern lore, sustained entire cultures and nourished wildlife in an otherwise unforgiving part of the planet.
The Rio Grande is the third-longest river in the United States, exceeded only by the Yukon and the combined Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Yet this summer it nearly stopped flowing from Colorado into New Mexico. The muddy water that does flow into Texas is something of a mirage, released from reservoirs or even imported from faraway basins. Drained by farmers, divided by treaty, feuded over in courtrooms and neglected when not pumped and drained, the Rio Grande is at once one of America’s most famous rivers and one of its most abused.
The problem is compounded by the techniques that farmers and cities have developed to get around such water shortages: When rivers run low, they can tap into deep aquifers or pump water from hundreds of miles away. All of which raises a tough question for a technologically advanced country like ours. If we don’t think we need the Rio Grande for its water, are we willing to save it for its own sake?
The Rio Grande is so long that when Europeans first arrived they didn’t realize it was all the same, roiling body of water. It sustained tens of thousands of Native Americans: The Pueblo people populated the basin to the north, while tribes such as the Manso lived easily off the fish, ducksand bounty of the middle river, according to accounts by Franciscan monks in 1598 who accompanied the conquistador Juan de Oñate when his
The Rio Grande is so long that when Europeans first arrived they didn’t realize it was all the same, roiling body of water.
Downstream, wrote the historian Paul Horgan in his book on the Rio Grande, “Great River,” published in 1954, “The river at Presidio came among willows, cottonwood, lilacs, mountains with attendant clouds, emerald green fields and pink sand, through a sweetness in the air made from all these together.” Some Native Americans called the river P’soque, or big river. The Spanish named the lower stretch Rio Palmas, for its thickets of palms.
As the centuries marched on, so did the Rio Grande’s names and uses. The Spanish farmed corn, chick peas and sweet onions while watching bald eagles snag five-pound fish from the water. After independence, Mexico named it the Río Bravo, or fierce river. American settlers in the Southwest called it the Rio Grande, and operated paddle wheelers on its southern stretches.
But with the turn of the last century came hydroengineering across the arid American West. Colorado, New Mexico and Texas divvied up the water with a compact in 1938; the United States and Mexico followed, in a 1944 treaty. Life-giving water was reduced to mere debits and credits in an accounting ledger.
Ever since, the river has been tamed, dammed, channeled and diverted into aqueducts, canals and ditches. The American humorist Will Rogers liked to call the Rio Grande “the only river I know of that is in need of irrigating.” I grew up on this river; to this day, my mother’s neighbors still open a rusty metal gate to flood their yards with muddy irrigation water. And presto: Lawns, orchards and alfalfa bloom in the sandy, alluvial soil.
Today, however, there is less snowpack than ever, and the river is still hamstrung by obligations that are nearly a century old. This year the river gauge in Embudo, N.M. — a gauge established in 1881 and the oldest in the nation — recorded the lowest flows in history. Yet Texas and New Mexico are battling over the river’s water in the courts.
This year’s near disappearance took people by surprise. By late spring, snowmelt water was so sparse that around Albuquerque, where it runs near dry, sandy beds revealed where fish had clustered, awaiting their deaths. Hikers were horrified. “It was just sad,” said John Fleck, who directs the water program at the University of New Mexico. “It was just so sad.”
Snowmelt water was so sparse that around Albuquerque, sandy beds revealed where fish had clustered, awaiting their deaths.
To the north, the tiny silvery minnow, an endangered species that nourishes larger fish, is on the verge of disappearing even in the imported water, with just 5 percent of its historic population. For nearly 200 miles, from Fort Quitman, Tex., to the Rio Grande’s confluence with the Conchos, the tributary that is the sole source of water for the southern portion of the river, the river is largely dry and devoid of aquatic life.
Things are better below the Conchos, but that may change: Mexico, which controls the Conchos upstream, is planning to impound more of its water.
Judging by the way state and national governments continue to drain away the river, it’s easy to believe that they’ve written off the Rio Grande — that it’s beyond saving, so they might as well get everything from it that they can. And these days it doesn’t help that the Rio Grande’s beauty has been marred by its association with the United States-Mexico border; much of it in that area is impossible to get to, a tangle of fences, light poles and border patrols.
“People have said the river is lost cause; I don’t like that,” said Tim Bonner, a biologist at Texas State University. “Yes, it’s lost some things. Yes, its future is uncertain but it’s absolutely still a functioning system.” He added, “But it’s up to society to come to a decision about what’s acceptable and not acceptable.”
The history of the Southwest is replete with tragic river stories. The Gila River, for one, rises as a New Mexico trout stream but disappears from its historic course into the concrete canals of Phoenix. But the Colorado River — once so overused that it no longer reached the Sea of Cortez — now, thanks to decades of conservation and smart water policies, pushes through a forest of reeds to the sea again.
The Rio Grande could follow the Gila, or the Colorado. Which path it takes is not for nature to determine. It’s for people to decide