For centuries, humans have come up with ingenious ways of putting the country's second-longest river, the Rio Grande, to work. Pueblo Indians built brush dams that shunted water into fields of maize. Spanish farmers dug networks of dirt irrigation ditches, or acequias, that still sustain and hold together farming villages.
Today, the Rio Grande waters fields of
alfalfa and cotton, rows of emerald pecan trees and red chilies. In
Albuquerque, El Paso and Juçrez, the Rio Grande waters lawns,
fills bathtubs, cleans cars and stone-washes jeans. In places, so
much water is diverted that you can walk across the Rio Grande
without getting your feet wet.
The dry riverbeds
are no accident. They happen because of dogged determination to use
every drop of water, and careful planning at the tables where water
decisions are made.
This special issue of High
Country News is about the effort to enlarge those tables. It's
about attempts by environmentalists, small farmers and ordinary
citizens to make their voices heard. It's about cracking the iron
triangle of federal agencies, congressional representatives and the
local water elite that for much of this century decided how Western
rivers were used.
"People are saying, "We don't
want the Rio Grande used simply for delivery of water. That's too
restrictive a vision," "''''says University of New Mexico law
professor and water specialist Denise Fort. "We need to expand the
notion of what's possible for this river."
new vision is actually an old vision: Leave some water in the river
unused, begin to turn the dammed, diverted and leveed Rio Grande
back into a natural river, let the banks overflow in the spring,
give the cottonwood bosque room to regenerate, allow native fish to
swim upstream to spawn.
Restoring the river will
be a long, difficult process, characterized by legal posturing and
hard bargains. But as stories in this issue show, it is
On page 6, Austin, Texas, writer Bruce
Selcraig tells the story of acequia farmers in northern New Mexico,
who fear that a ski area expansion could wipe out a cultural
renaissance. HCN staffer Greg Hanscom writes on page 10 that
environmentalists and small farmers are driving reform on the
middle Rio Grande, site of a titanic struggle over
The public finally has a say in the future
of the Rio Grande, but many of the region's water elite are
resisting. Progress depends on cities, pueblos, irrigators, and
state and federal agencies coming out of their corners and
committing to change.
The process will test the
limits of our ingenuity. We've learned to make the Rio Grande do
our bidding. Are we creative enough to allow it room to be a river