Imagine a River

  • Evan and Keenan Vincent along the Rio Grande

    Michael P. Berman photo

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature stories.

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."

The 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 starting.

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 water.

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 again?

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