Too much can be asked of a river

 

What do China's Yangtze, India's Ganges and America's Rio Grande have in common? All share the dubious distinction of making a "Top 10" list compiled by the World Wildlife Fund of rivers in trouble. On the lower Rio Grande, where the river forms the border between the United States and Mexico, the challenges include widespread diversion to farms, dams, high rates of evaporation, invasive species and, of course, prolonged drought.

Two days after the World Wildlife Fund released its report in mid-March, I walk to the Rio Grande, a mile and half west of my house, as the grackle flies. A bank of dark clouds squats atop the mesa framing Albuquerque's west side, and the wind is blowing sand and last year's brittle leaves. Looking down, I can see plants greening from their roots; looking up, I find that the branches of the Siberian elms are all tipped with green. Green buds on trees are a call for springtime celebration, but I'm struck by the fact that these invasive elms seem to outnumber cottonwoods along the river. I remember what an outspoken former Forest Service employee, Doug Parker, told me last year, that Russian olive trees were invading the West more aggressively than salt cedar or tamarisk, and Siberian elms were moving in right behind.

I can hear a woodpecker drumming a hollow note, and the chorus of ducks coming in for a landing. Reaching the river, I'm surprised to see it lapping at its banks this early in the spring. But then, warm temperatures arrived in New Mexico in early March and wiped out much of the decent snowpack we'd acquired this winter.The National Weather Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Agriculture Department were all thrown off this year: They'd predicted snowmelt would occur the second week in April.

Probably no one should be surprised. Climatologists have been warning that the Southwest is in for a warmer future, which means that the snowpack will melt earlier, causing peak runoff to occur before irrigation season even begins. Warmer temperatures also cause greater evaporation from reservoirs and irrigated fields (and off the snowpack itself), as well as longer growing seasons. In other words, the Southwest can expect less water and greater demand for it, unless we start getting smarter about how we treat our rivers.

Here on the middle Rio Grande, the river has dried in stretches each summer since the 1990s, stranding endangered fish, angering farmers who say they don't receive full allotments of water, and worrying state officials who must ensure that New Mexico shares the river's waters with Texas. And the system is bound to become even more complicated. Since the 1950s, cities along the river have relied exclusively on groundwater pumping, and they are only now accepting the signs that mining groundwater isn't a sustainable way to live. But cities aren’t trying to solve the problem by managing rampant development. Instead, they want to pump water from the river.

For its part, Albuquerque will continue pumping groundwater, but beginning next summer, the city will also divert 48,200 acre-feet of water that flows into the Rio Grande via pipes and tunnels from the San Juan River. Since the 1960s, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built its San Juan-Chama diversion project, some 110,000 acre-feet have supplemented the Rio Grande's native waters. It's hard not to wonder what will happen to the already stressed river once Albuquerque and 14 other users start diverting this San Juan-Chama water.

The river flows through this urban stretch today in near silence. The occasional sound of water changing its course against a root is more akin to a flicker than a splash. Even the ducks hush as the wind picks up and the skies darken; tonight, the clouds will drop rain. The river seems more like a flow of red-brown mud than water, and I'm drawn to place my hands under the surface, despite the floating shampoo bottle and some flotsam that resembles the filthy head of a shaggy dog. The water is cold to the touch, and I can almost forget that all of it is spoken for.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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