At a roadside pullout near Spring Creek Pass, high in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, you can see the beginnings of the Rio Grande. There, a glacier-carved valley funnels snowmelt into a meandering creek, lit silver by the twilight sky.
"Filtering down slopes of grass and timber, the moisture bursts forth in tumbling creeks," says a U.S. Forest Service sign, shielded in plexiglass, at the edge of the parking lot. "Pausing briefly in Brown and Hermit Lakes, it pours into the Rio Grande for a 1,850-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Wherever it passes, semi-arid lands are nourished and refreshed: would-be deserts become fertile croplands."
If only it were so simple.
These days, you'd be hard-pressed to follow this river to the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande stops and starts repeatedly at dams in Colorado and New Mexico, and finally peters out completely along the U.S.-Mexican border below the twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Chihuahua. Until recently, at least, a lower stretch of the Rio Grande did reach the Gulf of Mexico, as advertised by the Forest Service, thanks to tributaries that joined the river downstream of El Paso and Juarez.
But even that has changed. Last spring, for the first time in memory, the Lower Rio Grande failed to muster the energy - or water - to reach the Gulf. Tapped by farmers, burgeoning border cities, and prolific manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, the river was cut short a few hundred feet from where its muddy and much-used waters once rolled into the surf.
Where the mouth of the Rio Grande used to be wide and deep enough for ocean-going ships, a sand dune was all that remained. At Matamoros, Mexico, near the river's mouth, the river dropped below the city's intake pipes, forcing officials to turn off residents' taps at night to conserve water. Reservoirs along the lower Rio Grande fell as low as 15 percent of capacity. At Falcon Reservoir, 150 miles upriver from the Gulf, people moved back into Mexican villages that were flooded when Falcon Dam was built half a century ago.
The news coverage has been rather unflattering. "Rio Grande trickles out," read a headline from the Associated Press. "In this part of Texas, the Rio Grande isn't grand anymore," wrote the Austin American-Statesman. The Dallas Morning News dubbed the river "the Rio Wimpy."
The truth is, it's been a long time since the Rio Grande wasn't dammed and plumbed and, in places, turned on and off like your backyard garden hose. Most of the Rio Grande is controlled by an agricultural empire that channels the water into fields of chilies, cotton, pecans and vegetables. There's also a new force on the river - this one built on commerce, not produce. In Taos, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, it's real estate. Downriver, in El Paso, Juarez, Brownsville and Matamoros, it's free trade. These urban centers are giving agriculture a run for its money, and threaten to leave even less water for the Rio Grande, the riparian forest and native fishes.
The conservation community, for its part, has been as disjointed as the river itself, and unable to tackle issues as huge as these. But the shift of power from agriculture to cities offers opportunities for river advocates to carve a slice of the water pie for the Rio Grande. And as you'll read in this issue, conservationists are pulling together in a way they never have before, trying to create a plan for restoring the river.
Their greatest challenge won't be working out the hydrology or the biology, or navigating the halls of Congress in search of funding - although these will loom large. The greatest challenge will be to ally with other forces on the river - farmers, Indian tribes, industry - and create public consciousness of a river that has literally been reduced to tatters.
I was reminded of this last fall when I spoke with a Mexican fisherman on Amistad Reservoir on the Lower Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas. When I told him I was from Colorado, he asked if that was where the Grand Canyon was. No, I said, the Grand Canyon's in Arizona. "Oh," he said. "Is it on the Rio Grande?"
It might seem odd that a man who made his living from the river didn't know much about where it came from. But the Rio Grande is a huge, complicated river, and there are few people who know more than a small chapter of its overall story.
The story of the Rio Grande isn't a simple one, or a pretty one. But if the great river is going to survive outside of songs and storybooks, it's a story that needs to be told. Just as the Colorado River defined the West's struggle over water during the 20th century, the Rio Grande will be the river to watch during the 21st.