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Know the West

Down the Rio Grande, one piece at a time


Ernie Atencio's cover story about Questa, N.M., and the story on page 3 about the silvery minnow are the latest installments in our series on the Rio Grande. We kicked off the series, funded by the McCune Foundation, last fall with a special issue titled, "Imagine a River" (HCN, 10/11/99: Imagine a river). Most series like this one begin with a sweeping essay in which the author travels from the headwaters to the river's end, painting a picture of the river as it wends its way to the sea.

We were not so graceful. But then, the Rio Grande hardly "wends" from its headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, it stops and starts. After tumbling out of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, the river is reduced to a trickle by irrigation canals in the San Luis Valley. At San Acacia, near Socorro, N.M., the river runs dry during drought. At Caballo Reservoir, south of Truth or Consequences, farmers turn the river on and off like a spigot. Between Fort Quitman and Presidio, Texas, the river runs virtually dry for 200 miles. Where the river isn't literally parted out for irrigation, it is divided on paper by compacts and treaties that apportion its water among three states and two countries, the United States and Mexico.

Still, we're beginning to imagine this river, though the image looks more like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The puzzle's uneven edges outline hundreds of mountain basins and desert washes at the fringes of a 180,000 square-mile watershed. Many of these headwater basins are littered with leftovers from the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War. In the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains, mines such as Summitville and Molycorp have filled tributary streams with heavy metals.

On the Pajarito Plateau, a shoulder of the Jemez Mountains, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratories spent decades dumping bomb-making waste into canyons above the Rio Grande. All this was brought to light this June, when the forests around Los Alamos burned - forests that, like many in the Rio Grande watershed, are overgrown and flammable following years of logging, overgrazing and fire suppression.

Follow those tributary streams toward the mainstem, and you'll find small towns subsisting on tourism and small-scale farming. In northern New Mexico, working-class villages such as Dixon are fighting to hang onto the water and the acequias or irrigation ditches that have sustained them for centuries.

On the banks of the Rio Grande proper, which slices through the center of New Mexico, sit six Indian pueblos. Like the acequias, the pueblos are looking for a way to hold onto tradition while roping in cash with casinos, tourist shops, golf courses and soccer fields. The pueblos hold the most senior rights to the river, though those rights are largely untested.

Instead, this part of the river is managed by farmers who grow alfalfa for dairy and beef cattle, pecans and New Mexico's famous chilies. But there are other big players on the river - the cities of Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces. As these cities watch their wells and reservoirs drop, they are looking to farmers, and to the Rio Grande, to provide water for steadily growing suburbs. Meanwhile, using the endangered silvery minnow as a pry bar, conservationists are trying to open the floodgates just enough to keep some water in the river.

Herein lie the makings of an ugly fight. For every gallon of water in New Mexico, State Engineer Tom Turney has said that there are three gallons of water rights. And for every water interest, a legion of lawyers stands in the wings.

So far, the debate over the Rio Grande can only be described as ugly, and it's in keeping with the river's history, says raft guide and conservationist Steve Harris. The Spanish conquistadors brutalized Native American tribes in the region, and Anglos have returned the favor, taking Hispano water and land, he says. "New Mexico has been a colony from the get-go. There's no history of cooperation," he says. "I think this history of conquest is why we solve our problems this way."

Some say putting this river back together is a pipe dream. But as the recent pact over the silvery minnow shows, if all the players come together, a part of the river can find room to act like a river again. We'll look for more examples over the coming year as we flesh out the picture of the upper Rio Grande and work our way, herky-jerky, to the sea.

If you'd like to see HCN's series on the Rio Grande all in one place, go to our Web site (www.hcn.org) and click on the "Imagine a River" icon. Greg Hanscom is an HCN associate editor.