A river on the line

A trip through the U.S.-Mexico borderlands reveals a tough road ahead for the Rio Grande

  • SMALL FRY: A fisherman's son on AmistadReservoir

    JT Thomas
  • Bess Metcalf, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo BasinCoalition

    JT Thomas
  • A map of the Rio Grande

    Diane Sylvain

TERLINGUA, Texas - From the front porch of the Terlingua Trading Co., you can see clear to Mexico. Beyond the nearby mounds of mercury-mine tailings and crumbling adobe shacks, the Chisos Mountains jut from the west Texas desert. Beyond the Chisos, cobalt blue against the cloudless sky, stand the Mule Ear Peaks and Bee Mountain, marking the northern fringe of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Somewhere south of us, between the layered, dogtooth ridgelines, the Rio Grande slides silently below the steep canyon walls of Big Bend National Park and Mexico's Ca–on Santa Elena Protected National Area.

But from here, the river seems an impossibility. The air is stale with cigarette butts and spilled beer - the residue of last night's revelry at the Starlight Theater Restaurant and Bar. The local pirate radio station spills Texas roadhouse out the front door of the Trading Co. The only water here comes in bottles and costs a buck fifty at the counter.

Terlingua, once the center of Texas' mercury mining industry, is a haven for recluses and river rats - folks who make their living rowing rafts, talking river ecology, cooking in cast-iron Dutch ovens. They live here in the "Ghost Town," paying $65 a month to rent renovated miners' shacks. One guide lives in a cave, an old dynamite cache from the Mexican War.

It's a strange place for river culture. It's a strange place for a river. It's not just that we're sitting in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert, a place bristling with barrel cacti, cholla and prickly pear. It's also the fact that the Rio Grande dried up about 150 miles upstream.

We watched it waste away two days ago, from the riverfront in El Paso. Photographer JT Thomas and I had spent a week traveling down the river from near its headwaters in Colorado to get to El Paso. Over the course of about 600 miles, the Rio Grande had transformed from a lively trout stream to a sluggish irrigation ditch tapped by farms in the San Luis Valley, New Mexico and far west Texas. By the time it hit El Paso, it was ankle-deep and heavily guarded.

One of its guardians - a U.S. Border Patrol agent - didn't seem to notice it at all. He was focused on the far bank. "See that orange and green house on the hill? That's a coyote house," he said, pointing through the smoggy sunrise toward El Paso's sprawling twin, Ciudad Juarez. "They're probably watching us right now." Mexicans will pay coyotes, smugglers, $200 for an escort to the U.S. side of the border, he told us. Most are quickly rounded up and bused back to Mexico.

Just below El Paso and Juarez, at Fort Quitman, Texas, not even halfway through its 1,800-mile trip toward the sea, the Rio Grande disappears (HCN, 3/12/01: Divided Waters). What follows is a "no-man's land," in the words of Bureau of Reclamation planning engineer Mike Landis, who is finishing a master's thesis on the area. "Cattle and horses wander from one country to another (across the dry riverbed) and nobody cares, nobody counts."

Those who know the place call it the "Forgotten River."

Yet here we are, 150 miles downstream of the spot where the Rio Grande dies in the desert, and they tell us there's a river out there, beyond the tailings piles and terra-cotta mesas. Like that Texas cowboy in the old Marty Robbins song, "El Paso," the Rio Grande is drawn inexorably south "just to die in the El Paso sand." And like Robbins' cowboy, the great river has managed to "disappear from life and live another time."

But the Rio Grande's second life plays out the same way its first incarnation does. Downstream of Big Bend, the U.S.-Mexico borderlands are booming. As the Rio Grande flows slowly southeast, it is once again called on to water an agricultural valley and growing urban centers. Just a few hundred feet from the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande dries up a second time.

In this in-between border world which, in many ways, has become a nation all its own, things don't look good for the great river. We're here to see what's left of it and ask if there's any hope for reviving one of the West's most hammered waterways.

Our exploration starts here, outside of Terlingua, with some of the many people who depend on a healthy river for their livelihood. It's late afternoon when we slide our rafts into water that is roiling brown, like coffee hit with a slug of cream. Piled high with rubberized dry bags and waterproof ammunition boxes, the rafts slowly loft into the current.

Behind us, a man in a small metal rowboat shuttles a group of children across to the U.S. side of the river, which is perhaps 100 feet wide. No Border Patrol in sight.

"It's a Class B crossing," explains Darren Wallis, one of our sturdy, suntanned guides. A trip across the river costs a dollar. Americans catch a ride south to grab dinner in Lajitas, Mexico, while Mexican kids cross to school each day in Lajitas, Texas. The Border Patrol doesn't bother them.

We drift into Big Bend between walls of giant river cane and saltcedar. Great blue herons stalk the shallows. Black phoebes snatch insects mid-air. The river carries us through, but in spots it's barely deep enough to float our rafts.

Most of the water here comes from a tributary, the Rio Conchos, which rolls down from Mexico's Sierra Madre, cutting northeast across the state of Chihuahua and joining the Rio Grande near Presidio, Texas, just 50 miles upstream of our put-in. Under a 1944 treaty, Mexico must deliver at least 350,000 acre-feet on average to the Rio Grande each year from the Conchos and several smaller tributaries. In return, the U.S. delivers to Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet annually from the Colorado River.

But since 1992, Chihuahua has been in a drought. Mexican farmers have used much of the Conchos' water for crops, and watched their reservoirs drop precipitously. The old treaty allows Mexican water managers to hold back deliveries to the U.S. during drought years - a stipulation they've used to amass a debt of 1.4 million acre-feet. The Rio Grande has not seen its share.

Yet even with little water from the Conchos, the Rio Grande maintains a steady, if meager, flow here. "The dynamic that puts water in this river is hard to pin down," says river guide and water expert Mike Davidson, co-founder of Far Flung Adventures, a rafting company with a penchant for breeding environmental activists (HCN, 10/22/01: The Rio Grande's unsung diplomat). "We're talking about how a whole part of this continent drains."

One piece of the dynamic becomes quite clear that night as we're finishing our dinner under the stars, rafts parked on a sandbar on the Mexican side of the river. Slowly, without our really noticing it, it becomes really dark. Fat raindrops thwack against our faces and the tents. In moments, it's dumping rain, and headlamps are bobbing wildly about camp. We clean the dishes, pack the food and dive into our tents, soaked.

It's been raining for maybe 15 minutes, and already we can hear waterfalls roaring over the canyon rims. In the glow of his flashlight, JT watches water seep in through the floor of his tent. He grabs his camera equipment and sleeping bag in time to scramble for high ground as a six-inch tide washes over his bedroll. Darren slogs through the mud and dark to check the rafts. I fall asleep in a puddle to the roar of water on the tent, wondering if I should have pitched it higher on the riverbank.

The next morning, the only signs of the deluge are a high-water mark about three feet above the river, and flowers everywhere. Darren says these plants have adapted to bloom whenever the conditions are right, and they're right today - warm and wet. We spend the day floating through Santa Elena Canyon, between vertical, 1,500-foot limestone walls. Canyon wrens scold and trill. A peregrine falcon perches high on a cliff, waiting for a duck or a pigeon to make a move.

"Our river has had its roots chopped off," says Davidson. "It doesn't stretch up into Colorado (anymore). It doesn't stretch up into the Sierra Madre. But it's a wonderful little river."

Davidson believes the Rio Grande in Big Bend holds a secret: Upstream, the Forgotten River isn't dead, he says, it's just invisible. Each year, roughly 200,000 acre-feet of agricultural runoff makes it past Fort Quitman, he says. What doesn't evaporate joins water from springs and arroyos, and runs through the Forgotten River underground, beneath an impenetrable forest of saltcedar.

"It's really an anomaly," he says. "It's like there's a huge sponge, 80 miles long and two miles wide. It'll hold storm runoff for 30 days, and it keeps these nice moderate water flows in the park."

Davidson needs to be attuned to the river for his business. It's also his passion. He is one of a handful of visionaries along the Rio Grande who understand that this was once a true river, traveled by eels and shovel-nosed sturgeon and lined in places with wetlands and woodlands. He dreams of someday reconnecting the great river with its roots, allowing it room to flood and meander, its native fish species to spawn and thrive.

He's also a realist. He knows that it will be politics that decides whether the Rio Grande survives here. While the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico hosts the endangered silvery minnow, those who want to see the Forgotten River revived have no endangered species hook (HCN, 10/11/99: A tiny fish cracks New Mexico's water establishment). And downstream of the Forgotten River, where the flow has long been in the hands of agriculture and cities, most native fish species are long gone.

"If the problem is going to be solved, there's going to be beds full of unlikely bedfellows," Davidson tells JT and me after two days on the river, as we prepare to leave Terlingua for points east.

Some of the unlikely bedfellows came together in 1998 and formed the Forgotten River Action Committee. Made up of river guides, scientists and agency officials, the committee in the summer of 2000 helped convene a meeting of then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his Mexican counterpart, Julia Carabias Lillo, head of the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. The duo signed a joint declaration of international cooperation, saying they would look into restoring the stretch.

But both Babbitt and Carabias were lame ducks, and their successors, Gale Norton and Victor Lichtinger, have not yet shown any interest in river restoration. Even if they were interested, says Mike Davidson, the drought stands in the way of any short-term progress. "We can get as smart as we possibly can about water management, and sing ÔKumbaya' together at some border conference," he says, "but unless we get some rain, it's all a pretty moot point." So for the time being, the Forgotten River will remain, for most people, just that.

If the river between Fort Quitman and Presidio, upstream of Big Bend, is forgotten, the rest of its length has exactly the opposite problem. Joined by the Pecos River, the Devils River and a few other tributaries, the Rio Grande fuels the agricultural engine of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where farmers on both sides of the border grow vegetables, cotton and sugar cane. Farming here is made possible by a pair of international reservoirs, Falcon and Amistad.

JT and I arrive at Amistad after a long drive southeastward across the Texas desert from Big Bend. This is a place built on hope. Amistad is Spanish for "friendship," and in the center of the dam, directly atop the U.S.-Mexico Border, stands a pair of giant bronze eagles flanked by U.S. and Mexican flags. The cover of a visitor's map shows four women waterskiing behind a single speedboat. Each carries a flag: perhaps the state flags of Coahuila and Texas, and the national flags of Mexico and the U.S.

At first glance, 'Amistad' seems a fitting name, but a visit to the Mexican side of the reservoir shows it's a paradoxical spot. Near the dam is La Playa Tlaloc, the Tlaloc Beach, named for the Aztec god of rain. A thicket of brightly colored picnic pavilions lines a hillside above bar and restaurant. The area is empty except for a young couple sitting at a picnic table with small children in their laps. The reservoir, at 50 feet below capacity, has receded a mile from the "beach."

Out at the water's edge, a fisherman hauls a load of catfish, bass and a huge carp out of his fiberglass skiff. He's a member of a local fishing co-op, he says, that sells its catch to restaurants and markets in nearby Ciudad Acuna. But because of the drought, he says, for seven years the reservoir has been down - "abajo." The catch has been down - "abajo."

Following one of the driest summers on record, Amistad is down to 30 percent of capacity, while Falcon has hit 15 percent. The drop hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2000, suspicious that Mexico had been hoarding water, Texas farmers commissioned a study of the Chihuahuan drought. The study was a bombshell, claiming that rainfall in Chihuahua had actually been 80 percent of normal. Some farmers suggested that the U.S. stop delivering Colorado River water to Mexico until Mexico paid up.

Mexicans, however, pointed to cattle dying of thirst, parched, unplanted fields, and water restrictions in Chihuahua City. There was certainly a drought in progress, but the two countries quarreled over its severity, and whether it was serious enough to justify Mexico's water debt.

Hope for a compromise appeared during President George W. Bush's first visit with Mexican President Vicente Fox last February. Following the meeting, the countries signed an agreement called Minute 307. Mexico agreed to deliver 600,000 acre-feet of water to the U.S. before July. The deadline came and went, as did two subsequent deadlines, but the drought has only deepened and only half of the promised water has materialized.

"They have never intended to meet the obligations of the treaty," says Gordon Hill, general manager of the Bayview Irrigation District in Los Fresnos, Texas. "They're running us out of business."

Emotions are high on the Mexican side as well. Farmers on the Rio Conchos in Chihuahua have taken over the local offices of the National Water Commission and blocked reservoir gates to protest delivering water to the U.S. But even Mexican farmers are divided over the issue: Recently, farmers in the Gulf state of Tamaulipas, who, along with Texas farmers, depend on Chihuahua to release water into the Rio Grande, joined U.S. efforts to force a payback.

Now, the issue seems to be stalled. The U.S. branch of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the entity charged with mediating such disputes, has asked its Mexican counterpart to ante up by Oct. 2. "In a nutshell," says agency spokeswoman Sally Spener, "the U.S. thinks Mexico should be meeting its treaty obligations."

To date, however, there has been no response, and Mary Kelly, executive director of the Texas Center for Policy Studies in Austin, says it's doubtful that Mexico will be able to pay off its debt any time soon. "U.S. farmers can scream all they want. The fact is that there's not much water there," says Kelly. Time would be better spent, she says, re-examining compacts and treaties that were negotiated 60 years ago, and creating a long-term sustainable water plan for the entire Rio Grande Basin.

Farmers aren't the only ones watching the river. The Lower Rio Grande Valley is also home to a string of cities that have grown like gangbusters in recent years, including Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, McAllen, Reynosa, Brownsville and Matamoros. Most of these cities get their drinking water from one source: the Rio Grande.

Just below Amistad dam, the twin cities of Del Rio, Texas, and Ciudad Acuna, Coahuila, offer a stark look at life on the border. It's Halloween night, and JT and I walk south across the river to Ciudad Acuna in search of food and drink. The narrow streets, lit by a few dangling streetlights, are filled with people. Kids in store-bought costumes poke into restaurants and bars and yell, "Halloween!" JT and I consider teaching a pack of them to say "trick or treat," but decide that they know better than we do what produces booty here.

"The border is like a third country," Ciudad Acuna Mayor Jose Eduardo Ramon tells me later. "It's like one community. There's a river between us, but it's the same community."

It's a community in the throes of enormous change. Ciudad Acuna's population doubled during the 1990s to 108,159 (2000 Census), as people flocked here from the interior to work at the city's 63 maquiladoras, manufacturing plants owned by corporations such as Alcoa, Bendix and GE. In Mexico, only the tourist center of Cancun has outpaced Ciudad Acuna's rate of population growth.

"We can't keep up with demand for utilities, schools, paved streets, you name it," says Ramon. Until recently, the city's sewage sat in antiquated lagoons and spilled into the Rio Grande. In the middle of town, sewage ran into a creek once frequented by children. "When I was a kid, we used to fish there," says Ramon. "The last few years, you couldn't stand the stench. It permeated the downtown area."

Ciudad Acuna just finished building a $22 million waste-water plant, and is in the process of replacing miles of sewer lines. Ramon hopes someday to clean up the creek and turn it into a park. But even now, only 60 to 65 percent of households have sewer lines. The city has also recently completed a water treatment plant, but one in every 10 households still has no running water.

It's a snapshot of what's happening all along the Lower Rio Grande. The population of the Lower Rio Grande Valley almost doubled between 1980 and 2000. Analysts predict it will double again by 2020.

Keeping basic infrastructure and environmental protection in step with this surging population growth is a challenge - and the health effects of pollution just make it worse (see story next page). "Short of a general policy on population - and there's never been the political will on either side of the border for that - you're going to have growth, you're going to have conflicts," says Fernando Macias, general manager of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, or BECC, based in Juarez.

BECC was set up in 1993, under a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement, as a concession to the environmental community, which was concerned that free trade would spread growth, development and pollution across the already-stressed border landscape. The sister agency of the North American Development Bank, BECC's task was to funnel money from the U.S. and Mexican governments into sewage treatment, drinking water and solid waste facilities for poor border towns.

The program got off to a slow start, however. At the end of 2001, NADBank had loaned only $15 million of the $304 million it had received from the U.S. and Mexico. In response, the NADBank board proposed eliminating BECC, which acts as a middleman while also ensuring that projects are built with community support and an open public process. The board wanted to free up the NADBank funds for use in Mexico's impoverished interior, despite the fact that BECC estimates that the border will require far more in infrastructure than NADBank alone can fund.

The governors of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, backed by environmental groups, beat back the proposal, and BECC now has 90 new projects in the pipeline. But Bush and Fox are scheduled to meet again in March, and sources say BECC could once again be on the chopping block.

"If (federal officials) continue to pursue this, they have gone against what everyone along the border has said," says Andrea Abel, a policy analyst with the National Wildlife Federation in Austin. NADBank had set its interest rates so high that poor border communities couldn't afford to take out loans, she says. But BECC and NADBank have recently come up with some innovative solutions, such as low-interest loans and a broader range of environmental projects, including air quality and toxic waste.

"These institutions are headed in the right direction," Abel says.

The fight to save BECC illustrates what a difficult task lies ahead for environmental advocates along the Rio Grande.

Historically, the International Boundary and Water Commission, split into U.S. and Mexican sections, had a monopoly on water issues on the border. For years, however, the agency was more concerned about dividing the water between the two countries than it was with the quality of that water, or the health of the river. That has changed, thanks in part to BECC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, which have become more involved in border issues in recent years. The EPA has brought $238 million in grants to bear on wastewater treatment plants and other border infrastructure. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been a leader in conservation and restoration of the river corridor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (see story next page).

But building a constituency for these agencies has been difficult because the environmental community along the Rio Grande has been as fractured and stretched thin as the river itself. Local groups often fight isolated battles for slices of the river without any overarching vision or cohesive strategy.

In El Paso, JT and I had met with Bess Metcalf, the U.S. director of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition. We'd wolfed down green chili while Metcalf described her efforts to pull together river activists on both sides of the border.

In Mexico, a few nascent grassroots groups had popped up, and larger groups such as Ducks Unlimited and World Wildlife Fund were at work on the national level, she'd said. But there was no solid middle-class environmental movement. It was quite the opposite on the U.S. side, where dozens of small groups worked independently. "There were personal animosities. Environmentalists kept tripping over each other. It was so chaotic."

There are still dozens of conservation groups at work along the Rio Grande * a fact evident on Oct. 20, dubbed Dia del Rio, or Day of the River. From Alamosa, Colo., to Ciudad Acuna, people gathered to celebrate the river, known as the Rio Grande stateside, the Rio Bravo in Mexico. Riverside residents planted trees, cleaned up trash, read poetry. Kids painted pictures of the river and tromped through the riparian forest. In Norogachi, Chihuahua, the community held an all-night ritual of prayers and dancing, asking for protection of the river. In Las Cruces, N.M., residents built boats out of everything imaginable and "raced" them down the Rio.

Dia del Rio, organized by Metcalf's Rio Grande Rio Bravo Basin Coalition, is a sign that these groups are starting to come together. "People realize that we're never going to solve the problems on the U.S. side if we ignore what's happening in Mexico," she said. "People realize that we need to speak really with one voice. We need a unified restoration vision."

To that end, the coalition has been working with grassroots groups, from the San Luis Valley in Colorado down to El Paso. Together with the Alliance for the Rio Grande Heritage, they're creating a river-restoration vision for the Upper Rio Grande on the scale of the restoration now under way in the Florida Everglades. "I have to say, I think it's going to bear fruit in the next few years," said Metcalf.

Other groups are tackling the entire cross-border Rio Grande watershed. The Natural Heritage Institute in Berkeley, Calif., is working with agencies and academics in the U.S. and Mexico to conduct a massive "physical assessment" of the river. When they're finished, they will have a sophisticated computer model of the Rio Grande that should help river managers understand the system as a whole, rather than as a series of rivulets.

But as JT and I drive north from Ciudad Acuna and Del Rio, across the west Texas scrub, we can only think that building support for environmental protection in a region with such desperate human needs will be a Herculean task. The task is made more difficult by the fact that the leaders of both the U.S. and Mexico continue to view the borderlands as peripheral. Bush is busy with his international war on terrorism, while Fox has bigger problems in the interior of Mexico.

But through the mayhem of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, quietly, even invisibly, a river still runs. North of us, past many miles of desert, painted purple by flowering Texas ranger, past Fort Stockton, Roswell and Santa Fe, a snowstorm is brewing over the San Juan Mountains, seeding another season for the beleaguered Rio Grande.

Greg Hanscom is HCN's associate publisher.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- What is poisoning border babies?

- Running for cover on the Rio Grande


  • Mike Davidson, Far Flung Adventures, 800/359-4138;
  • Gordon Hill, Bayview Irrigation District, 956/233-5800;
  • Sally Spener, International Boundary and Water Commission, 915/832-4175;
  • Mary Kelly, Texas Center for Policy Studies, 512/474-0811;
  • Ciudad Acuna Mayor Jose Eduardo Ramon, 011-52-877-826342;
  • Fernando Macias, Border Environmental Cooperation Commission, 011-52-656-6884600;
  • Andrea Abel, National Wildlife Federation, 512/476-9805;
  • Bess Metcalf, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition, 915/532-0399.
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