A tangled web of watersheds

  • Rio Grande

    Diane Sylvain
  • Map of the upper Rio Grande tributaries

    Diane Sylvain

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

The Rio Costilla represents only a tiny part of the overall Rio Grande system, which crosses state and international boundaries, trickles through dams, and loses volume through countless diversions during its 2,000-mile long journey. The Costilla Creek Compact distinguishes the Rio Costilla, but the river has about 15 major tributaries, each facing distinct problems - and each struggling with its own complex history.

A sampling of reports, north to south, from the Rio Grande's Colorado and New Mexico tributaries:

* The Alamosa River, not far from the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Creede, Colo., is still suffering the effects of cyanide pollution from the nearby Summitville gold mine, despite a $120 million federal cleanup effort.

* The Conejos River, originating in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, has been designated a "Wild Trout Fishery" by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. However, diversion of water from the Platoro Reservoir has drastically reduced the river's flow.

* The Red River, which flows through the ski town of Red River and the Hispanic community of Questa, is considered the most severely polluted stream system in New Mexico. Tailings spills and acid drainage from Molycorp's molybdenum mine waste sites have devastated the river's trout fishery.

* The Rio Hondo sustains Taos Ski Valley and several small agricultural communities. The river's water quality is threatened by resort development at the ski area, including a sewage system that discharges into the river, and by leaking septic systems and livestock grazing in the valley below.

* The watershed of the Rio Embudo, which runs through Picuris Pueblo, has been the site of bitter conflicts over logging in recent years (HCN, 4/28/97). But Picuris Pueblo activists recently celebrated the ouster of a planned Summo Corp. copper mine, which was set to break ground within the river's watershed (HCN, 8/17/98).

* The headwaters of the Rio Chama, high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, are the site of the San Juan-Chama project. This diversion, intended to offset Albuquerque's drain on its shrinking underground aquifer, transfers water from the Colorado River basin to the Rio Chama. The Abiqui£ Dam blocks the river's flow in its lower reaches.

* The Rio Puerco has one of the highest sediment loads of any river in the United States, due in part to historic sheep-grazing on the banks of its upper reaches. "When you first look at the sediment numbers, you think somebody made a typo," says New Mexico oral historian Pat D'Andrea. The river also passes through a uranium mining district, gaining a hefty load of heavy metals and radionuclides as it flows past aging tailings piles.

By the time the Rio Grande reaches El Paso, Tex., and Ciudad Juarez, Mex., it isn't much of a river. It runs between the cities in a concrete-lined channel, absorbing toxic waste from the increasing number of U.S.-owned maquiladoras in Mexico. From there, what remains of the Rio Grande - known as the Rio Bravo del Norte to those on the Mexican side of the border - traces the international border for 1,250 miles until it drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

Amigos Bravos and Forest Guardians are not the only groups working to solve some of these problems. The newly formed Alliance for the Rio Grande Heritage is an Albuquerque-based umbrella organization of local, state, and national conservation groups working to restore the Rio Grande watershed in New Mexico, particularly the middle Rio Grande. To find out more, contact Sue George with Defenders of Wildlife at 505/255-5966.

The Rio Grande Alliance, based in Austin, Tex., is a cooperative, basin-wide restoration effort supported by conservation groups and state and federal agencies. For more information, contact manager Terri Buchanan at 512/239-3600 or find the group's Web page at www.riogrande.org.