Too much can be asked of a river
—LAURA PASKUS, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
What do China’s Yangtze, India’s Ganges and America’s
Rio Grande have in common? All share the dubious distinction of
making a “Top 10” list compiled by the World Wildlife
Fund of rivers in trouble. On the lower Rio Grande, where the river
forms the border between the United States and Mexico, the challenges
include widespread diversion to farms, dams, high rates of evaporation,
invasive species and, of course, prolonged drought.
Two days after the World Wildlife Fund released its report in
mid-March, I walk to the Rio Grande, a mile and half west of my
house, as the grackle flies. A bank of dark clouds squats atop the
mesa framing Albuquerque’s west side, and the wind is blowing
sand and last year’s brittle leaves. Looking down, I can see
plants greening from their roots; looking up, I find that the branches
of the Siberian elms are all tipped with green. Green buds on trees
are a call for springtime celebration, but I’m struck by the
fact that these invasive elms seem to outnumber cottonwoods along
the river. I remember what an outspoken former Forest Service employee,
Doug Parker, told me last year, that Russian olive trees were invading
the West more aggressively than salt cedar or tamarisk, and Siberian
elms were moving in right behind.
I can hear a woodpecker drumming a hollow note, and the chorus
of ducks coming in for a landing. Reaching the river, I’m
surprised to see it lapping at its banks this early in the spring.
But then, warm temperatures arrived in New Mexico in early March
and wiped out much of the decent snowpack we’d acquired this
winter. The National Weather Service, Army Corps of Engineers and
Agriculture Department were all thrown off this year: They’d
predicted snowmelt would occur the second week in April.
Probably no one should be surprised. Climatologists have been
warning that the Southwest is in for a warmer future, which means
that the snowpack will melt earlier, causing peak runoff to occur
before irrigation season even begins. Warmer temperatures also cause
greater evaporation from reservoirs and irrigated fields (and off
the snowpack itself), as well as longer growing seasons. In other
words, the Southwest can expect less water and greater demand for
it, unless we start getting smarter about how we treat our rivers.
Here on the middle Rio Grande, the river has dried in stretches
each summer since the 1990s, stranding endangered fish, angering
farmers who say they don’t receive full allotments of water,
and worrying state officials who must ensure that New Mexico shares
the river’s waters with Texas. And the system is bound to
become even more complicated. Since the 1950s, cities along the
river have relied exclusively on groundwater pumping, and they are
only now accepting the signs that mining groundwater isn’t
a sustainable way to live. But cities aren’t trying to solve
the problem by managing rampant development. Instead, they want
to pump water from the river.
For its part, Albuquerque will continue pumping groundwater, but
beginning next summer, the city will also divert 48,200 acre-feet
of water that flows into the Rio Grande via pipes and tunnels from
the San Juan River. Since the 1960s, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
built its San Juan-Chama diversion project, some 110,000 acre-feet
have supplemented the Rio Grande’s native waters. It’s
hard not to wonder what will happen to the already stressed river
once Albuquerque and fourteen other users start diverting this San
The river flows through this urban stretch today in near silence.
The occasional sound of water changing its course against a root
is more akin to a flicker than a splash. Even the ducks hush as
the wind picks up and the skies darken; tonight, the clouds will
drop rain. The river seems more like a flow of red-brown mud than
water, and I’m drawn to place my hands under the surface,
despite the floating shampoo bottle and some flotsam that resembles
the filthy head of a shaggy dog. The water is cold to the touch,
and I can almost forget that all of it is spoken for.
Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the
Range, a service of High Country News in
Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org).
She is a writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Forest Guardians organizes river restoration tree-planting
Stream Team is a massive undertaking. It started four years ago
with a vision of vibrant, healthy streamside forests all across
the Southwest. Its ultimate goal is to create self-sustaining rivers
of cool, clean water and provide critical streamside habitat for
wildlife such as beavers, trout, and hundreds of songbirds.
Each spring, New Mexicans have come together to celebrate Earth
Day by participating in Stream Team, which was created and is organized
by Forest Guardians, a Southwestern environmental advocacy organization.
This Earth Day, Stream Team volunteers planted hundreds of native
cottonwood and willow trees along the banks of the Rio Puerco in
central New Mexico. After weeks of removing non-native invasive
trees such as salt-cedar by hand, gathering native trees to be planted,
digging holes eight feet deep for the trees, and preparing the site,
Forest Guardians declared it ready for Stream Team 2007.
Once severely damaged by poor land management practices such as
cattle grazing, which contributes to the expansion of water-hungry
non-native trees, the Rio Puerco is coming back to life because
of active river restoration. Areas like the Rio Puerco are ecologically
critical streamside ecosystems in the arid Southwest. Approximately
seventy-five percent of native plants and animals depend on Southwest
streams for their survival, yet waterways represent a mere one percent
of the landscape in this region.
Some Stream Team volunteers have taken their commitment to Southwestern
rivers to the next level by gathering financial pledges for each
tree planted. This grassroots fundraising not only allows Forest
Guardians to continue its river restoration efforts, but also helps
raise awareness about the simple things citizens can do to improve
the health of local rivers.
Also last month, Forest Guardians hosted a Stream Team event on
the banks of the Santa Fe River. After almost ten years of restoration
along a stretch of the Santa Fe River near the airport, Forest Guardians
continues to improve the river’s condition by planting willows,
cottonwoods, and other native vegetation along eroded stream banks
to restore the river’s natural flow and water quality. The
trees the group has planted along the city’s namesake river
are thriving and have provided a self-sustaining seed source for
a healthy streamside habitat just minutes from downtown Santa Fe.
“Our river restoration on both the Santa Fe River and the
Rio Puerco has been a huge success over the past several years,
and Stream Team is always a fun event. Stream Team is an excellent
way for people who care about our connection with and dependence
on the natural world to be part of a solution to environmental problems
with their own bare hands and creative energy,” says Forest
Guardian Rosie Brandenberger. “It feels good to know you’ve
made a real tangible difference for our delicate planet at the end
of a hard day’s work.”
For more information, contact Rosie Brandenberger
at (505) 988-9126, ext. 155 or email email@example.com.
Audubon NM recognizes three state parks as important
Three New Mexico state parks—Elephant Butte Lake State Park,
Percha Dam State Park, and Caballo Lake State Park—have been
designated by the National Audubon Society as “Important Bird
Areas” (IBAs) in New Mexico. Audubon New Mexico recognized
the parks in April during the fourth annual “Migration Sensation”
at Percha Dam State Park. State Parks will also showcase a new wetland
project at Percha that will improve habitat for birds and other
Percha Dam, Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Lake State Parks comprise
nearly 78,000 acres of land and water habitat that is critical for
birds and other wildlife. The three state parks being recognized
in this event meet the IBA criteria because of the wide diversity
of quality bird habitat for nesting, migrating, and wintering birds.
State Parks is also completing a wetland project at Percha that
will further enhance habitat and improve excellent birding opportunities
in the campground area. The three parks serve as year-round attractions
for birds and birders.
In spring and fall, the bosque, wetlands, and open water within
the parks provide important migrating and breeding habitat for an
array of land birds. In winter, the parks host bald eagles and a
significant number of waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds. IBA
designation should further increase birding interest and visitation,
a benefit to State Parks and local communities.