Not another “ghost river,” please

 

I’m biased in favor of flowing rivers, yet my favorite, the Rio Grande, has been anything but flowing lately. Over the past few years, it’s been drying up downstream of Albuquerque every irrigation season between mid-June and Halloween. It seems odd to say it, but the river hasn’t the right to its own water. Instead, people do, using its water to cover their fields and orchards or run their taps until there’s no water left at all.

This year, more than 20 miles of the Rio Grande dried. Thirty dried last year, and 50 miles in 2012. In southern New Mexico, about 200 miles of the “river” are sandy for nine months of the year. As a former archaeologist — someone who has taken pick, trowel and brush to the remains of people who have passed — I can’t help but wonder what this says about my own culture: We use so much more than we can afford, no matter the consequences. There’s a term people use now for the Southwestern rivers that have ceased flowing regularly in the past century — “ghost rivers.”

But there’s still hope for another river in New Mexico.

Unlike the Rio Grande, which has been manhandled by diversions, dams and reservoirs, the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico runs how it pleases. If the rains don’t arrive, it trickles. When storms roar across the Mogollon Mountains, it swells and surges.

Right now, New Mexico is facing a big decision on the Gila.

Thanks to a string of court decisions and a law passed in 2004, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission has had 10 years to decide a big question: Should New Mexico spend $66 million in federal money to meet future water needs in four rural counties through conservation and efficiency? Or should the state accept an additional $34 to $63 million from the federal government to help build a diversion dam on the Gila, just downstream from where the river pours out of the nation’s first congressionally designated wilderness area?

By the end of the year, the state must announce if it’s chosen one of the three proposed diversion plans. Lowball early estimates of the projects put costs from $42 million to $500 million — plus a half-million to $9 million annually to operate and maintain the infrastructure. Outside analysts, including those with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, have pointed out problems with the proposed locations, identified engineering flaws with the structural designs, and questioned the ability of the reservoirs to actually hold water.

Not only that, but state officials don’t even know how much water — in real life, as opposed to on legal documents — the Gila could yield each year.

Retired Interstate Stream Commission director Norman Gaume and two other experts recently looked at the Gila’s historical flows and estimated that the state might get about 12,500 acre-feet of water a year. But about half the time, they said, the annual yield would likely be zero. Factor into that a recent climate study showing that as the region continues to warm, the Gila’s annual flows will average 8 percent less than between 1951 and 2012.

All those facts seem daunting, and yet, all indications currently point to the state choosing diversion over conservation and efficiency.

Meanwhile, I think about a stretch of the Gila just downstream of Turkey Creek. Since last September, when floodwaters ripped down the mountains, a C-shaped chunk of the riverbank has disappeared, creating a pool 20 feet below the trail. This is a naturally flowing river; erosion tears land away from one place and then sends it somewhere else.

Of course, the Gila will continue to change. In another century, people hiking here could see any number of sights: If winter snows cease falling regularly in the southern mountain ranges, this stretch’s flows will dwindle. And because the Gila is a feast-or-famine river — one that trickles or rages — the curve of the channel will by then surely be new. I hope the sycamores that have recently started returning will still be here, and thriving.

As someone who’s always wondering what future generations will think about the things we leave behind, I hope that in a generation or two, people won’t be staring down at yet another ghost river and the ruins of a failed dam. Using water more efficiently, conserving what we have – I hope we’re wise enough to try that first.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She writes about natural resource issues in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.