Time's Out for the Rio

Will our grandchildren remember the river?

PILAR, NM — From his cabin on the Rio Grande, river runner Steve Harris watches the flows of the river ebb and peak throughout the year. When the water runs clear, he glimpses northern pike below the surface. In winter, bald eagles nest along the river. And throughout the year, foxes and beavers, bears and badgers traipse through the yard. 

“This is my retreat to go back to after foraying out into the water wars,” he says, only half-joking. “Uncle Steve” has been running the Rio Grande, in one place or another, for about 35 years. And he’s been defending the river about that long, too.

As drought has intensified over the past few years, however, trying to protect what’s left of the river has gotten harder and harder. 

“There’s a whole bunch we can do—and it’s not like we’re doing nothing at all—I just don’t think as a state our response is adequate to the challenges that we face,” he says, pulling out the stump of a cigar and cracking a grin. “Our planning for water in the state is far less than exemplary.”

That’s a chronic problem: For instance, as New Mexico reinitiates a statewide water-planning process dating back to the 1980s, officials have said they’re not incorporating the effects of climate change into the equation. 

Yet less precipitation and higher temperatures seem to be colliding with the river’s future. 

Then there’s the bigger threat: us. 

The push-up dam outside Harris’s cabin is the first diversion structure on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. It diverts water into a small acequia that sustains a few acres of pasture and a garden in the village. “Once you get below here, the river’s been diverted to some degree or another,” he says, ticking off the biggest dams and reservoirs downstream: Cochiti, Elephant Butte and Caballo. “And on this same river, if we drove a thousand miles downstream, it would be dry.”

Traveling through an arid landscape susceptible to drought, the Rio Grande has often flowed in fits and starts. But until its waters were tamed in the 20th century—by dams, canals and increasingly sophisticated irrigation ditches—the river would also overflow its banks and swell across the wide floodplain. 

Those floods could wreak havoc on settlements and inundate farmland. But they also nurtured native fish species, gave birth to the cottonwood forests and helped push the river toward the sea. Today, the river is constricted and controlled, sucked dry by the demands of irrigators and cities and prevented from navigating new channels. 

As drought continues and climate change ramps up, the “Big River” is on its way to being the first of many climate casualties in New Mexico. And unless we all reconnect to Rio Grande—recognize its importance as a living river—our grandchildren might not know it as a force of nature. 

The Rio Grande starts as a trickle in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and flows through the San Luis Valley and then on into New Mexico. Over the course of several million years, it carved out the Taos Gorge and for centuries it has brought sustenance to pueblos, farmers and villages alike. 

Downstream of El Paso, the Rio forms the border between Texas and Mexico before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Along its journey, the river provides drinking water to more than a million people and irrigates two million acres of farmlands, lawns and orchards in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.

Some of the water flowing through Santa Fe's taps comes from the Rio.  Santa Fe has what's called a "diversified water portfolio," which means the city and county get their water from a variety of different sources, including groundwater, reservoirs on the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande. (Just to make things even more complicated, there are two different types of river water: The county has rights to the Rio Grande's "native" water, while the city has rights to what's called "San Juan-Chama" water—water that's drawn from the San Juan River in Colorado and piped into the Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande.)

The river water comes to the Santa Fe area via the Buckman Direct Diversion Project, which interim facility manager Shannon Jones says is meant as a sustainable water source. As the city and county looked out over the next few decades, water managers and planners realized that without Buckman, they wouldn’t be able to meet Santa Fe’s water needs.  

According to Jones, they consider the water projections month by month and draw water from the river based on demand. Currently, he says, that’s just over three million gallons each day.

To provide water for everyone’s needs, water managers keep a close eye on spring snowpack in Colorado and northern New Mexico. What’s hanging onto the mountains in April gives them a good idea of what will be coming down the rivers as demands for water increase through the late spring, summer and fall. 

The early April snowpack numbers from the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service show that in Colorado, the Upper Rio Grande Basin got a bump in snow from a few March storms. When it melts, that snow will help send a surge of water past Harris’s place in Pilar—and give a glimmer of hope to farmers downstream.

But the snowpack numbers are still far below average: According to the April Water Supply Forecast for New Mexico and the state’s Basin Outlook Report, snowpack in the basin is “significantly below average”—at 42 percent—and even lower than it was that time last year.  Even though Colorado had some decent snowpack thanks in part to those March storms, by early April, the Jemez Mountains were bare.

This was the fourth winter in a row with “disappointing” mountain snowpack and statewide precipitation across New Mexico. The outlook report also warns water users to prepare for “well below average water availability.” 

In early April, National Weather Service meteorologist Kerry Jones traveled to Northern New Mexico. Looking off toward Colorado from the area above Questa, he could practically draw the boundary between the two states. “Blanca Peak, a big 14er there stood out like this gem—shiny, white, as cold as can be,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘wow.’ The snowpack numbers from Colorado into New Mexico are like night and day.”

"This was the fourth winter in a row with “disappointing” mountain snowpack and statewide precipitation."


The numbers are sobering. But they shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Climate scientists have long been warning that the southwestern United States will experience warmer temperatures.  

Authors of the National Climate Assessment’s 2013 report noted that in the Southwest, the period since 1950 has been warmer than any period of comparable length in at least 600 years and that recent flows in the four major drainage basins of the Southwest, including the Rio Grande, have been lower than their 20th century averages. The report predicts  continued warming, a decrease in late-season snowpack and continued declines in river flows and soil moisture. 

From the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the New Mexico Environment Department, everyone has been issuing warnings about New Mexico’s water future. 

There’s also not much water left in the reservoirs cities and irrigators rely upon to make it through the summer. Current storage in the reservoirs on the Rio Grande averages only 15 percent of capacity. 

Want more brutal numbers? Jones has them all. Even his sister-in-law gives him a hard time about always being the bearer of bad news. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it anymore.

Statewide, he says, January 2014 was the driest month on record. The precipitation average was 5 percent of normal. Close to two-thirds of the state didn’t even receive a drop of rain or a flake of snow that entire month. 

And tallied together, the first four months of 2014 were the driest on record, Jones adds, noting that the early part of the year was also in the top 25 for warmest winter periods. 

During the Bill Richardson administration, the New Mexico Environment Department released a report detailing the potential effects of climate change on water resources, infrastructure, agriculture, natural systems, outdoor recreation tourism, environmental quality and health, low-income communities and communities of color  and Native American communities. 

The 2005 report identified vulnerabilities in infrastructure used for flood control and drainage, air conditioning, electrical power distribution, sewage, water supply, and transportation. Among many other things, the authors also noted that warmer temperatures would lengthen the growing season, but drought would limit crop and rangeland production. Warmer winter temperatures, they wrote, will reduce snow sport opportunities and lower water levels in lakes and rivers will adversely affect water sports.

Despite all the warnings, people are ever-hopeful that things will return to normal. So the snowpack’s been bad. Again. It’s April, let’s talk about monsoon season. Could this be a good one?

“We’ll see how it plays out,” says Jones. 

New Mexico has gone four winters without decent snowpack and we haven’t experienced El Niño conditions since 2009-2010. “But monsoon season doesn’t get you out of a drought. It’s the long term we need snowpack.”

Summer rains can offer short-term relief, he says. “It’s our ‘next best’ as we’re getting into the dry, windy part of the year and everybody’s looking ahead, asking ‘how is the monsoon going to play out?’” he says. “Then you have a crappy monsoon and everyone starts saying, ‘How is the winter going to play out?’” 

As much as anyone, Jones would love to see some cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels this summer. All that matters, he says. 

Higher soil moisture trends, for example, mean water has a better chance of actually getting into streams and rivers. “But when it comes down to it, you need to go up in those elevation areas in April and see snow down to 8,000 feet or lower,” he says. “That’s what we need. And we just haven’t seen that.”


It doesn’t take driving 1,000 miles south of Pilar to Texas, where about 400 miles of the Rio Grande are almost always dry, to see sandy riverbed.

Just look south of Albuquerque between June and the end of October. 

Last year, about 30 miles dried. Before the skies in September opened up and dumped rain for four days, people were bracing for water to disappear from the channel within the city. And that wasn’t the first time long stretches of the Middle Rio Grande dried in recent years. In 2003, the Middle Rio Grande ran dry for 60 miles. The next year, almost 70 miles dried.  In 2012, more than 50 miles dried. 

Whereas the Upper Rio Grande is fed by snowmelt, New Mexico’s lower section consists only of treated wastewater and runoff from farms.  For nine months out of the year, the river there is completely dry. Aside from when storms send flash floods down the channel, the only time about 100 miles of the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico flow is when is when managers release water stored in reservoirs and move it downstream—to be immediately diverted by irrigators.  

Within the sandy riverbed in Mesilla in mid-January, the only signs that remain of last year’s flows are twisted bits of cottonwood wrapped with dry grasses and the occasional fluttering sleeve of plastic. Concentric circles radiate in the sand around a single threeawn plant swept by wind. Skunks, birds and coyotes have left their tracks behind. And it’s hard not to smirk at the “Fishing Allowed Along River Only” sign.

Of course, people can point to the fact that historically, the river dried.  In his 1954 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Great River, Paul Horgan writes, “The river commonly does not carry a great deal of water, and in some places, year after year, it barely flows, and in one or two it is sometimes dry.” 

Arid-land rivers worldwide have flows that can wax and wane dramatically. That is, the riverbeds can be dry and sandy for a spell, then rage with floodwaters. 

But the morphology of the Rio Grande is different today. Until very recently in its geologic history, the riverbed wasn’t broken up by dams and diversions. There were backwaters, oxbows and dryland lakes that stored water and helped species survive. Thanks to humans tinkering with the system, those are absent now.

Add climate change and drought to the scene, and it is clear the Rio Grande is in trouble. In early April, when a vulnerable stretch of the Middle Rio Grande—a stretch that is supposed to support an endangered fish, the silvery minnow—should be flowing between 600 and 900 cubic feet per second, it is hovering below 200. It’s only a matter of time before the drying will begin. 


Drought isn’t like a landslide. It doesn’t slough off a mountainside, destroying everything all it once. Rather, it ekes away at life over the years. Puny snowpacks don’t refill reservoirs. Dry soils are stirred up and blown away by spring winds. Deciding to pack it in, one farmer, then another, sells off water rights to a city. An old stand of cottonwood trees isn’t replaced by saplings. A species of fish goes extinct.

Then one day, a new generation wakes up and doesn’t remember that a river once flowed through their community. A dry riverbed is no longer something unusual. Rather, it’s just another dusty rut in the landscape of memory. 

This has already happened in the City Different with the Santa Fe River.  Despite the city’s  Living River Target Flow Ordinance, the Santa Fe River is dry most days out of the year. It’s been that way since the 1940s when Santa Fe’s demands for water from upstream reservoirs exceeded the amount of water to keep the river flowing, even intermittently. 

This spring, the city has been running water through the river channel in order to empty McClure Reservoir and have it ready for reconstruction by September. Unaccustomed to seeing water within the river, some people complain that the city is wasting water. 

“New Mexico should be proud of its rivers,” says Christopher Hoagstrom, a professor at Weber State University and former US Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist who worked throughout the state. 

He ticks off not only the Rio Grande, but the Pecos River in the eastern part of the state and the Gila, in southwestern New Mexico. “And we should ask ourselves, ‘What happens to areas, long term, without their rivers?”  

That answer can be seen throughout the Western United States: From Fort Stockton, Texas, where oil drilling and roadside trash have overtaken cattle grazing to the Owens River Valley of California, a lush landscape that withered and dried after its water was siphoned off to Los Angeles. Pumping groundwater can work to sustain places—for a while. But even those resources are being overused. And the systems take tens of thousands of years to be replenished. 

“Human cultures rise and fall on water—and we’re a part of that,” Hoagstrom says. “People think of the Rio Grande as something that’s separate from their lives or from what they’re doing. But it’s an indicator, and the drying is a foreshadowing. If we dry the river, it shows we’re using water unsustainably.”

Biologist Tom Turner agrees. He’s a professor at the University of New Mexico, and the curator for fish at the Museum of Southwestern Biology. 

“If the river dries, in two or even one generation, no one would remember it was there,” he says. “And the buyer’s remorse is unrealized. It’s hard to learn from your mistakes; it’s hard to establish a memory that’s lost.”

Turner also cringes when he hears the river’s future framed in terms of “fish versus farmers.” That is, water managers can either keep water flowing for endangered fish, such as the silvery minnow in the Middle Rio Grande or take water from the river and provide for cities and irrigators. It’s not that simple, he says. 

“It’s easiest to convince people when you put things into very simple opposing terms, but the truth of the matter, and what I would advocate, is we consider everything,” he says. “Economic concerns should be on the table, but we have to fully value to the extent we can what the preservation of a natural system does for us as well.”

It’s not too late, says Turner. “Here we are. We still have rivers. And we have a choice,” he says. “We have a great opportunity here.”

For instance, he says, the Rio Grande needs a right to its own water. Right now, the channel flows for only one reason: to move water from place to place. That is, to deliver water to the irrigators and cities who own its rights, send water to downstream states or jiggle reservoir levels. Under federal law, the Albuquerque stretch of the Middle Rio Grande has to be kept wet to benefit two endangered species. But those flows are required only to hit 100 cfs.  

As for Harris, he’s a bit more optimistic about the recreation season than he was in mid-February, when flows appeared to be peaking at around 500 cfs, a full month before the “normal peak.”

“I think it’s the same way with the ag industry,” he says, “we have to be resilient and figure out how to do more with less.”

People will be disappointed this summer when they can’t run the Taos Box, a 20-mile stretch of the Rio Grande with more than 50 rapids. But opportunities remain. People can still raft, canoe or kayak other stretches of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico; the Rio’s tributary, the Chama River; or even the Middle Rio Grande above Albuquerque. These are shorter, family-oriented trips. “Bring the kids out,” he says, “this is something you can do together on the water.”

While water managers and officials scramble to figure out how to meet everyone’s needs and plan for the future, that’s perhaps the best way for the rest of us to participate. Get to know the river. Commit its sounds and sights to memory. And truly understand what’s at stake.

For more of SFR's coverage on climate change check out Feel the Heat and A Glimpse at the Future.

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