Click to enlarge — Laura Paskus
PILAR, NM — From his cabin on the Rio Grande, river runner Steve Harris watches the flows of the river ebb and peak throughout the year. When the water runs clear, he glimpses northern pike below the surface. In winter, bald eagles nest along the river. And throughout the year, foxes and beavers, bears and badgers traipse through the yard.
“This is my retreat to go back to after foraying out into the water wars,” he says, only half-joking. “Uncle Steve” has been running the Rio Grande, in one place or another, for about 35 years. And he’s been defending the river about that long, too.
As drought has intensified over the past few years, however, trying to protect what’s left of the river has gotten harder and harder…
That’s a chronic problem: For instance, as New Mexico reinitiates a statewide water-planning process dating back to the 1980s, officials have said they’re not incorporating the effects of climate change into the equation.
Yet less precipitation and higher temperatures seem to be colliding with the river’s future…
The push-up dam outside Harris’s cabin is the first diversion structure on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. It diverts water into a small acequia that sustains a few acres of pasture and a garden in the village. “Once you get below here, the river’s been diverted to some degree or another,” he says, ticking off the biggest dams and reservoirs downstream: Cochiti, Elephant Butte and Caballo. “And on this same river, if we drove a thousand miles downstream, it would be dry.”
Traveling through an arid landscape susceptible to drought, the Rio Grande has often flowed in fits and starts. But until its waters were tamed in the 20th century—by dams, canals and increasingly sophisticated irrigation ditches—the river would also overflow its banks and swell across the wide floodplain.
Those floods could wreak havoc on settlements and inundate farmland. But they also nurtured native fish species, gave birth to the cottonwood forests and helped push the river toward the sea. Today, the river is constricted and controlled, sucked dry by the demands of irrigators and cities and prevented from navigating new channels.
As drought continues and climate change ramps up, the “Big River” is on its way to being the first of many climate casualties in New Mexico. And unless we all reconnect to Rio Grande—recognize its importance as a living river—our grandchildren might not know it as a force of nature…
The numbers are sobering. But they shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. Climate scientists have long been warning that the southwestern United States will experience warmer temperatures.
Authors of the National Climate Assessment’s 2013 report noted that in the Southwest, the period since 1950 has been warmer than any period of comparable length in at least 600 years and that recent flows in the four major drainage basins of the Southwest, including the Rio Grande, have been lower than their 20th century averages. The report predicts continued warming, a decrease in late-season snowpack and continued declines in river flows and soil moisture.
From the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the New Mexico Environment Department, everyone has been issuing warnings about New Mexico’s water future.
During the Bill Richardson administration, the New Mexico Environment Department released a report detailing the potential effects of climate change on water resources, infrastructure, agriculture, natural systems, outdoor recreation tourism, environmental quality and health, low-income communities and communities of color and Native American communities.
Now, we’re starting the new year with the second term of a Republican governor owned lock-stock-and-two-loaded-barrels by the Oil Patch Boys. She cares more about engineering a gerrymandered electorate with a predictably complex photo ID system that satisfies both Homeland Insecurity and the Koch Bros.
Lip service is about as close as New Mexicans can get to acknowledgement of climate change from Governor Susana. Especially since she’s probably hoping to be the first Hispanic woman vice-presidential candidate.
The Democrats who remain in charge of the State Senate aren’t likely to be any more courageous than their cousins in Congress.
RTFA, though. It offers a detailed and well-described look along the course of the Rio and its decline.