Rio Grande: In High Demand

KMusser / Wikimedia
Map of the Rio Grande River

Will Rogers once described the Rio Grande as “the only river I know of that is in need of irrigating,” a prescient observation considering how fragmented this fabled river has become. At nearly 1,900 miles, the Rio Grande is runner-up only to the combined Missouri-Mississippi system in length within the continental U.S. Or it would be, if it still flowed the length of its channel.

From its headwaters in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas, the Rio Grande draws from 11 percent of the continental US, with much of that being drought-prone land. That vulnerability is compounded by scores of dams and irrigation diversions, which has left significant portions of the river dry in recent years. In 2001 the river failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico for the first time. In 2002, it happened again.

Yet segments of the Rio Grande remain among the most spectacular in America, including two designated National Wild & Scenic River stretches, a pair of National Monuments, and a National Park. After wending its way through some of the top trout waters in southern Colorado, the Rio Grande tumbles into a cavity of sheer-walled canyons carved from the volcanic rock of New Mexico’s Taos Pueblo.

The box canyons of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, dedicated in 2013, offer dramatic wilderness and important bird sanctuary surrounding some of the finest whitewater in the West for skilled paddlers, establishing an outdoor recreational mecca that extends downstream along 74 miles of Wild & Scenic river.

It’s a solid 600 miles between rapids until the river reaches its lower Wild & Scenic designation surrounding Big Bend National Park along the Texas border with Mexico. Despite being redirected and sucked dry for hundreds of miles before reaching El Paso, the river gets replenished by Mexico’s Rio Conchos just upstream from Big Bend’s iconic eponymous S-curve enough to feed a 191-mile segment of Wild & Scenic river, established in 1978.

Towering limestone walls stretching up to 1,500 feet in the park’s Santa Elena and Mariscal canyons provide much of the scenery amidst a remote, rugged wilderness that extends far beyond Big Bend’s 118-mile river boundary.

The Rio Grande is a Southwestern treasure that could become a legend in its own time. Click To Tweet

The Backstory

Water supply within the Rio Grande drainage is dwindling. The International Boundary and Water Commission was forced to lease irrigation water to grow cottonwood trees for habitat restoration along the riverbank below Elephant Butte Dam in central New Mexico. Diversions for municipal and agricultural use already claim some 95 percent of the Rio Grande’s average annual flow, and Elephant Butte’s gates now only open during a short irrigation season.

Increasingly frequent droughts in the face of climate change and growing populations around Albuquerque and El Paso could exacerbate the problem. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates the upper Rio Grande watershed will collect 30 percent less water by the end of the century, as annual snowpacks shrink and evaporation rates increase.

The river’s tragic story is perhaps best told from the perspective of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow in New Mexico, the final survivor of a suite of small native minnow species once found throughout the river. Reduced to just 5 percent of its former range by dams and diversions, it survives only in the middle section of the river, near Albuquerque. The last minnow may soon be driven from the river by the growing demand for water in the face of drought.

  • Rio Grande at Dunn Bridge, NM
    Tim Palmer for the USFWS

The Future

Because of its listing under the Endangered Species Act, the Silvery Minnow has long been a source of conflict, including litigation. But it does manage to buy some time by keeping water in the basin that otherwise wouldn’t likely be there.

Albuquerque has begun to realize the benefits of a healthy Rio Grande for drinking water, recreation, and the community at large, and is taking proactive steps to conserve its water and land.

Outdoor recreation is now the third leading industry throughout the entire river corridor, behind agriculture and mining (petroleum, natural gas, coal, uranium ore, silver, lead, gold, potash, and gypsum).

A balanced approach to water management, including aggressive conservation and efficiency measures, is needed if the silvery minnow—and by extension the once mighty Rio Grande—is going to recover.