The Rio Grande's unsung diplomat

River activist 'Uncle Steve' Harris makes waves rather than headlines

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  • WILD AND SCENIC: The Rio Chama in northern NewMexico

    Greg Hanscom

It was the fall of 1996, and Pilar, N.M., rafting guide Steve Harris was plying the waters of the Rio Grande, in a potato truck. He wasn't in the river itself, but neither was the water - it was soaking the soil of Ray Wright's fields in Colorado's San Luis Valley.

The story of how Harris, one of the Southwest's most steadfast river advocates, landed at the wheel of a potato truck is a roundabout one, but it says a lot about him. It also says something about how Harris has become one of the driving intellectual forces shaping the Southwest's most beleaguered river.

The way Harris tells it, he and his rafting company, Far Flung Adventures, had enjoyed great river flows through the 1980s. The rapids in Taos Gorge were frothing, and tourists rolled in by the boatload. Then, in 1988, the river peaked early and faded to a trickle. By May 1, Far Flung was out of business. Harris headed upstream to Colorado looking for answers, and found his first hard-knocks lesson on Rio Grande water.

The water he'd been boating on, he learned, belonged mostly to farmers, and it was being spread over the fields around small towns such as Antonito, Colo. "Antonito was underwater with diversions from the Rio Grande," says Harris.

Under a 1938 compact between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, Colorado is obligated to leave a percentage of the Rio Grande's water for the other states downstream. But in 1998, spring arrived suddenly in the mountains, and a big slug of runoff came down all at once. By May, Colorado's water debts were paid for the year, and it was open season on the Rio Grande.

"Everybody could take all the water they wanted," says Ralph Curtis, general manager of the San Luis Valley's Rio Grande Water Conservation District. "We were drying up the river."

Harris started attending meetings of the Conservation District and the federal Closed Basin Project, which control the river just north of the New Mexico line. He wanted to let them know that people downstream were banking on having water in the river. Water managers were receptive, he says, but when drought hit in the spring of 1996, everyone suffered. In April, the Rio Grande went dry near Socorro and 10,000 endangered silvery minnows died on the riverbed (HCN, 10/11/99: A tiny fish cracks New Mexico's water establishment). Harris went to work for Ray Wright, in what Wright dubbed his "reach-out-and-put-an-environmentalist-to-work program."

"I kept a pin of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the sun visor in my truck," says Harris. "I'd bless somebody in the Rio Grande water establishment every day."

Harris never stopped talking about the river, and his tenacity paid off. These days, Closed Basin Project and Conservation District officials keep water in the Rio Grande all summer long. Harris says it's because they're aware of the folks downstream, but there's also a growing consciousness of the river's needs. As Ray Wright puts it, "A healthy river looks the same to an irrigator as it does to a rafter as it does to a fish as is does to a duck. We want this river to function better for all of us."

Common ground

It's hard to pin accomplishments on Steve Harris because he usually works behind the scenes. While other environmentalists make headlines, Harris toils quietly, in search of nuts-and-bolts solutions. But on a recent afternoon in northern New Mexico, the results of his work were clear.

"Every molecule of water we will be floating on belongs to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District," says the 52-year-old, goateed Texan, standing on the bank of the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. "In a few days it will be irrigating alfalfa and watering driveways in Albuquerque."

If not for Harris's diplomacy work, this water wouldn't be filling the river. It would be sitting in a reservoir upstream. The weekend flows for recreationists are the result of an agreement between the conservancy district and the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees this stretch of wild and scenic river. Harris helped the negotiations along by shuttling staffers down the river in rafts. A little whitewater did wonders to get old adversaries talking to one another, he says.

All along the Chama, there are signs of "Uncle Steve." Cottonwood seedlings and willows sprout from the sandy banks, planted by crews of "at risk" teenagers shuttled downriver by Far Flung Adventures. Stubbly stumps mark spots where crews have cut invasive salt cedar. Here and there, the riverbanks are lit with the fiery blooms of Mexican hat, which likely grew from seed balls Harris and his troops have spread in hopes of reviving rangeland hammered by cattle.

Harris knows every river bend, every camp spot, and just about everybody else on the river. "We who derive a living from natural resources have an obligation to protect those resources," says Harris. "I tell other raft guides, 'Look, the river has given us a lot. Let's give something back.'"

In search of solutions

To that end, Steve Harris has created a nonprofit advocacy group called Rio Grande Restoration. He travels to meeting rooms around Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, where the future of the river is being decided. One of the few activists on the Rio Grande who knows the river from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, Harris says his personal mission is "to go to every forum where the Rio Grande is being discussed and hold the river up."

Harris has advocated for wild and scenic protection for the Rio Grande's tributaries. He has been a central figure in negotiations over protecting the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. He's worked with farmers and water managers to find ways to look out for the health of the river, while meeting the needs of people.

"He logs more miles on his car than a cross-country truck driver," says John Horning with Forest Guardians in Santa Fe.

Now, Harris and Deb Hibbard, his partner at the foundation-funded Rio Grande Restoration, are tackling what they consider one of the greatest threats to the Rio Grande: the sprawling city of Albuquerque. The city has rights to water that is pumped into the Chama from the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado. The city has never needed the San Juan-Chama water, so it has remained in the river, where for at least five years, it has kept the silvery minnow alive. But now, the city plans to build a $150 million to $200 million water treatment plant to convert San Juan-Chama water into drinking water by 2004-5.

Harris, Hibbard and Bill Miller, an engineer who spent 10 years working for the New Mexico State Engineer, argue that the city can have its river and drink it, too. They've come up with a plan that they say would solve the city's water woes by pumping treated wastewater into an underground aquifer, where it would later be pumped out and used again. The plan is slightly more expensive than the city's, says Harris, but it will use about half as much water.

Albuquerque Water Resources Manager John Stomp is skeptical. He says Harris' plan could cost twice as much as the city's proposal, and that the city looked into a similar plan two years ago and concluded that it couldn't work. Nonetheless, he says, the city will include the proposal in its final environmental impact statement due out in November.

Stomp also says that Harris has been uncharacteristically aggressive with his proposal. "I think (his approach) is changing," says Stomp. "He's threatened to hire lawyers to oppose the city's diversion permit. He's been a healthy advocate for the river. But asking questions and threatening legal action are two different things."

Whether his latest proposal sinks or floats, it is clear that Harris will continue to push on the most powerful water brokers on the Rio Grande. "Steve Harris," says conservationist and author William deBuys, "is the kind of guy who could make the term 'river rat' a good name."

Greg Hanscom is associate publisher for High Country News. This story was funded by the McCune Foundation.

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