Memory of a River: In another hot year, we fail the Rio Grande
Where there should be water in the Rio Grande in southern Albuquerque on Sept. 15, 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco / Source NM)
In a crinkly government report from the 1920s, two photographs show what the Rio Grande looked like south of Socorro near the town of San Marcial, the remnants and memories of which are submerged today under the sludge and sand of Elephant Butte Reservoir’s northern extent.
Taken from a bluff above the Rio Grande, the photos show a wide, meandering river that has overflowed its channel and engulfed the lands beyond the bosque. The glossy black-and-white photographs are stuck to the report’s pages, and the typeset words read: High Water June 1, 1922. Discharge Old Channel 1,800 S.F., New Channel 7,100 S.F.
The “S.F.” refers to what we today call cubic feet per second and it’s a way to measure how much water is flowing past a certain point.
According to that report: “From time immemorial the Middle Rio Grande Valley has been subject to periodical floods that have at one time or another repeatedly submerged all of the area between its bluffs.”
We’ve changed all that.
Ninety-nine years later, I’m looking at a stretch of that same river—which in Spanish reports from the 1500s is called Nuestra Señora—and watching fish die in the tiny puddles still standing along the river bank as the channel has dried and cracked into an empty, sandy wash. What someone almost 20 years ago told me they called the “Rio Grande highway.”
Almost every year since 2002, when the Rio Grande has dried, I’ve reported on it.
I’ve ticked through all the facts: how many miles are dry, why and how the climate is warming, what biologists are doing to protect rare fish as the waters heat up and evaporate or sink into the sands, and through time, what agencies and irrigators have done to deny, ignore, or nowadays, try to alleviate the drying.
Today, I’m not telling you anything new.
I’m just telling you again.
Our river has dried.
As I type this in mid-July 2020, about 50 miles of the Middle Rio Grande are dry within two stretches south of Albuquerque. Upstream, the Buckman Direct Diversion in Santa Fe warned it might soon turn off its municipal tap from the river due to low flows.
At the end of June 2020, the water utility in Albuquerque had to stop drawing water from the Rio Grande and switch to groundwater pumping. And New Mexico, Colorado and Texas agreed in July to let the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District use water meant for other downstream users to “avoid catastrophic crop losses.” But that water will need to be replaced somehow, which means next year’s conditions will be even more dire.
It rained last night, and even though that cool water felt miraculous on my skin, it wasn’t nearly enough to revive a river and kickstart an ecosystem.
So, again. I’m not telling you anything new.
I’m just telling you again: Our river has dried.
On the first day of June, I peered down into the undulating sands of the Rio Grande from the edge of the Highway 380 bridge in San Antonio, New Mexico. Before heading back to my truck and driving to a different spot where I could traverse the Bosque and hike up the riverbed, I heard a wet glug.
The noise came from a spot where 13 months earlier I’d seen the biggest beaver I’ve ever seen. Following the line of small silvery fish shining flat in the sand, it took a few seconds for my eyes to focus on the interweave of light and shadow at the edge of the channel. There, a golden-scaled carp was trying to flip over in the mud; its refuge puddle had evaporated in the morning’s 90-degree heat. I snapped a few pictures and left the bridge.
This is normal.
Normal for New Mexico’s largest river to dry—not every summer, but more summers than not since the mid- to late-1990s.
According to records from across the state, New Mexico’s average annual temperature has increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years. In a recent issue of New Mexico Earth Matters, the University of New Mexico’s David Gutzler lays out the gritty details. Again. (He’s been at this a long time: Studying climate change, writing academic papers, talking to reporters, and teaching generations of students.)
In the spring, I talked to him about snowpack. At the time, Rio Grande was running about 20% of its historic average through Albuquerque. Those were rotten conditions, even though snowpack in the watershed was close to average last fall and into February, when conditions started to warm and dry.
Globally, April 2020 was the warmest April on record up until that point. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasted that 2020 will be one of the five warmest years on record—and there’s a 75% chance it will be the warmest year since scientists began tracking global temperatures in the late 1880s.
“This year was more along the lines of what I anticipate for the future, to happen more often,” Gutzler told me then.
Warm conditions in the already-warm, already-arid Southwest affect forests, orchards, wildlife, rivers—everything. When it’s warmer, plants need more water. People use more water. And rivers lose more water, even when we’re not in a drought and less snow or rain is falling.
Hydrologist Shaleene Chavarria has been paying attention to declining snowmelt and streamflows in the Rio Grande for a while—and I keep coming back to her research. In a peer-reviewed study she co-authored with Gutzler, she found that between 1958 and 2015, the river’s flows have declined, particularly in March, April and May. Though she called what happened this year “scary,” she wasn’t surprised.
“You get snow in the winter when it’s really cold, but then things get warm and dry—which is the long-term outlook for springtime in the Southwest—and the snow just melts away faster than our historical statistics would suggest,” Gutzler said of this year’s conditions. “This is more like a global warming-style of a low streamflow year, as opposed to a drought year [like 2018] that started off bad and stayed warm, and was just bad for the whole winter.”
In 2018, the Rio Grande dried in early April. Typically, over the past two decades, it has dried at the start of irrigation season, when its waters are diverted into ditches and canals. Two years ago, though, that early spring drying happened right when the river should have been ripping with spring snowmelt.
Then, the winter of 2018/2019 boomed. Spring waters roared down the Rio Grande, filling up side channels excavated to slow waters for rare fish and restoration projects—built to mimic the river we destroyed when we hoisted up dams and filled up reservoirs for farms and cities, straightened and channelized stretches of the river to no longer braid and meander.
The spring of 2019 was marvelous to behold, especially after the previous spring, summer and fall, when the state’s largest reservoir, Elephant Butte, dropped to 3% capacity.
That’s when a friend and I saw that fat, happy beaver grab some willow leaves, flip over, and float off downstream under the San Antonio bridge.
This June, staring down at the dead and dying fish, I wondered where that beaver was. I wondered how and where it found water, what happened to its spring kits.
Initially, when it dries, the Rio Grande can feel like a raucous, busy place.
The dying fish thrash and glug and splash. Birds seem manic with song. Coyote and raccoon prints pace up to each shrinking puddle. There are so many easy meals to snatch that they leave fish with just a few bites out of them in the middle of the bed.
Things quiet down pretty quickly, though.
When I returned to the dry riverbed three days later, it was quiet save for flies. The only birds I see are turkey vultures who soar and descend. The fish I watched struggle in the last of the hot puddles—those that haven’t been eaten—are now heaving masses of bone and maggot.
In 2002, I met some fisheries biologists. We used to drink a lot of beer and whiskey and talk about books. And I’d listen—incredulous—when they talked about their work on the Rio Grande. The river was drying up? I couldn’t believe that could happen. The Rio Grande? Plus, I’d never seen anything about it in the news.
If the state’s largest river were drying, surely that would be newsworthy.
Later that year I started working for High Country News, and could write about it myself, instead of waiting for someone else to notice.
At that time, there were minimum flow requirements during irrigation season—a trickle of water was supposed to be left in the river for the survival of the silvery minnow, a rare fish listed in 1994 for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But the minimum flow requirements appeared to be an irritation for anyone beyond the biologists who had called for their implementation the previous year. And at the time, as the river’s flows dipped below those minimums, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation—this was during the administration of George W. Bush—told me a gauge was out of whack, that the streamflow numbers I was watching on the US Geological Survey’s streamflow website were wrong.
Then 7 miles of the river dried. Agencies leased some water and tried to send it downstream. Biologists seined pools and plucked out rare fish.
Six years ago, I caught back up with Christopher Hoagstrom, one of the Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who worked on minnow issues back then. Now a professor, Hoagstrom described how “weird” it was to see the river dry in 1996, when about 90 miles dried.
Now, decades later, the river dries most years—even in 2019, with its high spring flows, fat beavers, and spawning minnows. That year, the Middle Rio Grande dried in September.
Now, it dries so regularly, it’s not newsworthy anymore.
It’s normal. Just like those floods were normal more than a century ago.
Riffling through a 1947 report about plans for development in the Middle Rio Grande, I read about floods of “great magnitude” between 1870 and 1890, “though no official records exist.” Newspaper reports, however, chronicled that the “damaging flows” continued for 90 days and “several competent engineering groups” estimated flows from 45,000 cubic feet per second to 125,000 cubic feet per second.
In 1920, floods lasted 64 days and peaked at 28,800 cfs. In 1941, flood conditions stretched across 61 days and hit 24,000 cfs. The flows in 1922—that I saw in the photographs—don’t even merit a mention.
So far, in July 2020, the Rio Grande at the 380 bridge had spiked above 1,000 cfs just once, briefly in April. Even 2019’s beaver-delighting flows weren’t much to brag about in comparison, though they jumped toward 4,000 cfs twice in May and June.
That 1947 report is all about the need for development—to control floods, dampen down a rising water table, control sedimentation and aggregation of the riverbed. To meet demands, revamp old irrigation infrastructure and to save the valley.
“Unless measures are taken to rehabilitate the project and protect the lands and present development against flooding, the existing [Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District,] which includes the metropolitan development of Albuquerque, the irrigated economy of the area, and the non-agricultural economy dependent on it will virtually disappear in an estimated 50 years,” according to that 1947 report.
The urgency of the language strikes me. People were not messing around back then.
Now, the river dries and dries. And we hope next year’s snowpack will be better.
On June 1, 2020, when I hopped down into the sandy riverbed and hiked cautiously toward the deeper cuts in the channel to look for water and fish, I kept thinking about a book I was reading about the transformation of the Bering Strait over the past century.
“The death of one living thing becomes life in another,” writes ecological historian Bathsheba Demuth. “An ecosystem is the aggregate of many species’ habits of transformation, their ways of moving energy from its origin in the sun across space and condensing it over time. To be alive is to take a place in a chain of conversions.”
The drying of the Rio Grande—despite how accustomed most of us have become to ignoring it or dismissing it—represents a vast transformation. And we are caught within that chain of conversions. It’s a transformation that we’re responsible for, on many different levels.
We colonized this river. We stole its floods. Pinned them back behind diversions and dams. Built reservoirs to retain water and attract Anglo farmers and settlements. Sucked away the river's waters from its channel to foist it upon dry soils where creosote and mesquite scented the desert, replacing them with chile, onion, alfalfa, pecans.
– Laura Paskus
And if you think I’m using the word “colonize” too freely, recall that as recently as the 1970s, the sacred lands and farm fields of the Pueblo of Cochiti were nabbed, then sacrificed to a reservoir to protect Albuquerque from floods.
Congress authorized Cochiti Dam in 1960, and despite outcries from many tribal members, the US Army Corps of Engineers built Cochiti Reservoir between 1965 and 1975. The pueblo “lost” about 30,000 acres. What that really means is they lost farmlands, hunting areas, sacred places, ancestral grounds, connections to their past—and lost their own stretch of the Rio Grande.
We also coughed and spat up so many greenhouse gases that the climate changed, the globe heated. Australia ignites, the Amazon ignites. Temperatures in Siberia soar to 100 degrees. In many places, including within our own state, the future will be uninhabitable—in some instances because of rising seas, in others because they’ll simply be too hot, too dry for humans to survive.
Early in my reporting career, I thought there were good guys and bad guys.
I thought that if I researched hard enough, asked enough questions, talked to enough people, I’d find one agency, one person, one action to blame. (That inclination toward villain-seeking might have something to do with being lied to while reporting on my very first story about the dry riverbed.)
Now, I know it’s the system in its entirety. The system we built to transform the desert, encourage and sustain white settlements, and provide certainty to our cities and ways of life.
I want to point to bad guys, here and now. But the truth is, the people working on these issues are the ones who care the most, who worry about rain and snow, and who’ve likely ceded a great deal of personal happiness to meetings, reports, arguments, litigation and agreements.
Over nearly two decades, I’ve seen how agencies and people have changed, and how hard people work to cooperate. How federal, state, local, and tribal agencies, as well as some conservationists, work together to try to meet everyone’s needs, to jiggle water in the system to try and keep some in the river.
But we can’t keep pretending that everyone’s needs can be met. We can’t keep hoping for a robust winter and hearty snowpack; we can’t keep hoping next year, the reservoirs will fill.
Remember that 2019 was a lustrous year for snow. But still the river dried. And reservoir levels on the Rio Grande remained far below capacity. Elephant Butte, for example, hit a high of about 29 percent capacity last July.
The other day, I received an email update from the Bureau of Reclamation about projected reservoir levels for Elephant Butte and Caballo—two critical reservoirs that supply southern New Mexico and Texas, and are a pinch point for litigation between the two states over distribution of the waters of the Rio Grande.
Right now, Elephant Butte Lake is 11.7% full, holding back about 230,000 acre feet of water. By this time next month, it will plummet to 124,000 acre feet.
“Unfortunately, our worst-case scenario is playing out with very little sustained monsoon activity, and increased temperatures driving demand,” read the email.
By the end of irrigation season, the reservoir will likely be down to where it dipped in 2018—about 3%.
In spring 2019, upstairs at the University of New Mexico Art Museum, six singers spaced themselves out across the floor, each standing in for a spot on the Rio Grande: the headwaters, Albuquerque, Elephant Butte Reservoir, El Paso, Big Bend and the mouth of the river at the Gulf of Mexico. On a screen, the year flashed for the audience, as the singers interpreted the streamflow data in song.
The six began their individual songs in 1974. They roared through the wet period of 1984 through 1993, a time during which many people moved to New Mexico and the state’s population begin inching upwards.
Familiar enough with the data from years of reporting on it, I waited for the ebbs and flows. Likely, I gripped my seat in anticipation of 2018. I didn’t want to hear the river screech to such a halt as it did, didn’t even want to hear Elephant Butte descend to sandy depths and stir the ghosts of its inundated lands.
Once the singers finished embodying the recent data—one of the three composers, Marisa Demarco, explained to me later—they each improvised a possible future for their point.
Listening to them then, I heard the chaos of the near-future. We know temperatures are rising. Scientists like Chavarria keep telling us, repeating again and again, that river flows are decreasing even in wet years thanks to the warming. Scientists like Gutzler keep telling us the warming trend keeps heading upwards, and water pressures will become tighter and tighter.
I listened to the singers’ voices tell the story of rising temperatures, quieted flows, uncertainty and fear. I imagined the chaos as we failed to heed the warnings, failed to make changes and plans, and kept clinging to outdated systems—systems that obliterated ecosystems and species and that had harmed some people to benefit others.
Then, notes emerged in the chaos of their voices that laid bare a different future. A future that left me in tears, but not because our river was gone.
This isn’t a eulogy.
Believe it or not, it’s a love letter.
Every news story I’ve reported on the Rio Grande — for this paper, for radio, for television, for magazines and online outlets — has been a love story. I’ve laid out the facts, asked you to see our river. And I’ve secretly implored each and every one of you to love our river.
Love can coast with the medians and averages. The regulated flows. But there’s banality in trudging through days unrecognizable from one another; there’s a certain dullness to water that’s moved from one reservoir to the next, depending on who needs it, what lawsuit is pending, what capacity there is for volume, and what tolerance we have as a society for dry riverbeds, extinct fish species and dead cottonwood forests.
In bouncy spring flows, however, there is wild, mad love.
And, I’ve learned, there’s love in the bitter quiet of a sandy river channel.
We’ve trapped this river, by our needs and within our laws. We’ve trapped this river by clinging to a colonial past, by failing to heed warnings, by lacking the imagination to change.
But Nuestra Señora, I know she still has tricks up her sleeve. I’ve listened to her voice. And she will outlast us all.
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