Muddy Hymnal

New Mexico's drying rivers herald a changing world

Last summer, cracks formed in the riverbed of the drying Rio Grande south of Los Lunas. (Laura Paskus)

Once again, the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque has dried. As summer begins and water is diverted into irrigation canals, the river slows and then separates into puddles. At first, footprints crisscross the riverbed. Coyotes, raccoons, lizards, birds: they'll all approach the water while it lasts. But after the mud puckers and hardens, the sand yields few signs of life.

As the river drying spreads, biologists rush to save one species of rare fish that used to swim the entire length of the river. Teams head out at sunrise, surveying for signs of water. Running nets through puddles, they sort through the slapping, gasping fish and separate Rio Grande silvery minnows from the suckers, carp, mosquito fish, even the occasional rogue goldfish. The minnows—protected under the Endangered Species Act—are loaded into makeshift tanks, then moved to a more reliably wet part of the river. The rest of the fish are left to die.

Under federal law, water managers must keep water flowing through the silvery minnow's habitat until mid-June. This year, they couldn't manage that feat—and by June 15, just under 18 miles south of Albuquerque were already dry. And for the first time in generations, drying is likely to spread north and through the city.

Biologists are busy moving fish in other areas, too. When the Tres Lagunas fire threatened Macho Creek, biologists packed Rio Grande cutthroat trout out of the Santa Fe National Forest. (In that case, the individual fish didn't necessarily need saving; rather, biologists wanted to preserve live samples of that pure population of native fish.) Meanwhile, last year's fires in the Gila National Forest kept biologists busy rescuing rare Gila trout from mountain streams.

While certainly commendable, this work seems desperate.

Eleven years ago, I wrote about how 60 miles of the Rio Grande and 40 miles of the Pecos River had dried. It was my first significant story as a reporter—and it ignited an obsession. Back then, I never could have imagined I'd spend a decade obsessing over the minutiae of federal and state agency meetings, irrigation infrastructure, and now, climate change.

But I can't seem to get over dry riverbeds.

When I first started reporting—and was shocked that New Mexico's two largest rivers were running dry—some of my sources were blasé about it. The 1950s, people would say: That was a bad drought. For seven years, the state received less than 12 inches of annual rainfall; for three of those years, less than nine inches. Crops failed, farmers went under—and in some places, underground aquifers still haven't recovered.
Things got better, for a while. During the 1980s and '90s, rainfall was plentiful by desert standards. Most people set fears of drought aside, even as scientists began warning about the problems climate change would cause in the southwestern United States.

Now in its third year of drought, New Mexico has surpassed the bad old days of the 1950s. The past 24 months are the driest on record—in the eight months since October 2012, Albuquerque has received less than an inch of rain—and the region is warmer now than it was 50 years ago. That means snow melts faster and earlier, soils are drier, agricultural crops and riparian plants alike need more water, and water evaporates more quickly from reservoirs.

Taken together, those factors represent a severe squeeze on supplies. At the same time, there are more demands than ever.

Today, New Mexico's population is more than double what it was in 1960. Groundwater supplies have been depleted throughout the state. And all those reservoirs built in the 20th century? Right now, their storage supplies are critically low—and along the Rio Grande, there's not enough water to get farmers or endangered fish through the summer.

I'll admit that when I covered the drought in 2002 and 2003, I was unabashedly smitten with disaster and conflict. Nowadays, I'm sick with grief to see the river's flows dwindle and dry. It's bad for fish, riparian areas and wildlife. City officials and real estate agents should be biting their nails; farmers certainly are, and at least one federal water manager admitted he finds himself worrying at 4 am about the drought.

Meanwhile, few citizens want to talk about climate change. Many even seem numb to yet another plume of smoke streaming from the Jemez Mountains. And even as dust storms and rainless clouds have become the norm, green lawns still abound around the state. Whether that's due to ignorance, selfishness or malice, I can never decide. Perhaps people are just desperate to stake some claim on a world that's slipping away as quickly as rivers evaporate and forests vanish in flames.

But the world has changed. And like fish with no place left to swim, we're running out of ways to keep treading water.

Santa Fe Reporter

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