‘It’s like a crime scene’ what’s happened to the Rio Grande in far west Texas

Looking with a generations-long view at a colossal shift in river health

By: - February 22, 2023 5:05 am
Estela Padilla recalls memories of the river from her youth in her home in El Paso, Texas.

Estela Padilla recalls memories of the river from her youth in her home in El Paso, Texas. “What we have managed to do in my lifetime, I don’t think even Mother Nature does that sort of thing in the natural world,” she said. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

SOCORRO, TEXAS — Estela Padilla dreams of the Rio Grande, the river of her youth.

In her home shaded by pine and pecan, Padilla, 77, said her heart is broken by the vast changes in what was once a mosaic of wild spaces.

“My grandchildren cannot relate to my memory of the river because they never knew it,” Padilla said, twirling a sprig of mint from her iced tea through her fingers.

Crisis on the Rio Grande is a multi-part series that travels along the river from Colorado through New Mexico and into Texas.

Read more: Salted earth at the tail of the Rio Grande’s snowmelt

Retired from her work as a fraud prevention manager for the U.S. Department of State, Padilla said she’s had more time to reflect on the reshaping of the river in her own lifetime.

“When you cut the water off, everything changes. Not only nature, but you change people’s way of living, the economy, the biodiversity,” she said. “It is so colossal. It’s like a crime scene.”

Pushing for more accountability for why the river’s in such bad shape, for how the water is used now, is a means of survival, Padilla said.

“The river, it’s just like the circulatory system of a body.” she said. “You cut it out, you die.”

Padilla, dressed in all white linen, hair pulled into a delicate bun, described how life in the Socorro of her childhood revolved around the river. She described it as a farming hamlet, with many families given land grants in the 1871 agreement incorporating the town. This includes the Trujillos’ parcels, her mother’s family, on Bovie Road.

“The culture was very tied to nature and what the earth produced,” she recalled. “Every little house had a garden of flowers in the front and a garden of vegetables in the back.”

A Gambel’s quail roo sits atop a tree overlooking the Rio Bosque Park. The changes to the Rio Grande made in the 20th century transformed the landscape, meaning the river has lost as much as 93% of its wetlands habitats. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Uncles would bring home an ecoté — turtle — to eat, or gunnysacks of fish to share with neighbors. She recalled the canopy of cottonwoods, “huge, ancient” and prolific, arched over the ditch next to her grandparent’s home. She and the cousins would play under their shade, feet sinking into soggy ground, to make crowns from the catkins.

“It is a tradition that cannot be continued because of the lack of water. And so it’s little things that make it so obvious that we have just done something irreparable and have changed the culture of the people,” she said.

The Rio Grande has lost as much as 93% of wetland habitats. Dam construction, building diversions and levees for flood control meant the human grip on the flows eliminated the patterns to grow cottonwoods and willows. People transformed wetlands to support agriculture or more urban development.

The lack of flooding, and groundwater loss through well use, “desertified” these spaces, and allowed for drought tolerant plants — both native and exotic — to replace those trees along the Rio Grande, according to a U.S. Forest Service environmental history.

Estela Padilla on the morning of June 18, 2022, at Bosque Wetlands Park, where she goes to walk. It’s a favorite place of hers. “What they have done here is magic,” she said, pointing to the cottonwoods. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Severe drought in the 1950s and construction to prevent additional flooding left bleached stands of cottonwoods along ditches. The trees declined further in the following decades.

At the bottom of the river, the ways of living and farming have drastically changed in a lifetime.

“My relationship with the river, it’s more of a lament,” she said.

The drought also saw population shifts across the United States away from agriculture and toward urban living. Padilla’s own family felt the shift in the ‘50s. Her grandfather, Jose Trujillo, farmed. Her father also worked in agriculture — until he didn’t.

“He drove a truck, and he hauled alfalfa to the dairies and hauled manure and did everything related to agricultural processes. And then all of a sudden, it was gone, and he didn’t have a job,” she explained. Instead, he got a job as a dispatcher for the water utility.

Visiting cottonwood stands further north in Albuquerque, or walking in the restored forest of Rio Bosque Park offers solace.

Estela Padilla stands for a portrait underneath a willow tree at the Rio Bosque Park.
Estela Padilla stands for a portrait underneath a willow tree at the Rio Bosque Park. Her dream for the river is “that we would find a way to create natural habitats for wildlife and for plants.” (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Gripping a walking staff, Padilla takes a moment to stop at the trail beside the restored canal to greet a soft-shelled turtle like an old friend, commenting on her beauty. Even as the area undergoes transformation into the ancient wetlands, Padilla said it’s difficult to reconcile memory and reality.

“It’s a totally new place, I have no experience of walking the trails or any of the surroundings.” she said. “I’m reacquainting myself with an area when I was young, but I’m thrilled to see the changes.”

Still, she dreams of a future for the trees here.

“My roots are in the river and the life the river gave us,” she said. “It’s not the way my children grew up. It’s not the way my grandchildren grew up. But I tell them the stories, and I talk about the trees, and they know my love for the cottonwoods.”

Seepage from Caballo Reservoir fills the river at Percha Dam State Park in New Mexico, allowing for grasslands and a strip of native trees to grow here.
Seepage from Caballo Reservoir fills the river at Percha Dam State Park in New Mexico, allowing for grasslands and a strip of native trees to grow here. Dam construction, flood control and agricultural shifts to the lands upstream from El Paso eliminated the river patterns that allowed cottonwoods and willow bosques to grow downstream. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)

Find the next article, A hidden gem of wetland near the Texas border fence, at SourceNM.com on Friday.

This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.