The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Laura Paskus

Laura Paskus

Too much can be asked of a river

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 Juan-Chama water.

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 ( She is a writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Forest Guardians organizes river restoration tree-planting events

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

Audubon NM recognizes three state parks as important bird areas

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 wildlife.

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.

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