The Bosque of the Rio Grande, a Gem to Protect

After three years of drought, the Rio Grande flows bank-full during September floods, replenishing parts of its floodplain in New Mexico. Photo by Sandra Postel

September’s record-breaking rainfall and floods brought tragic loss of life and property to parts of Colorado and New Mexico.  The devastation has been hard to fathom.

But for a river like the Rio Grande, which has suffered through years of drought, the floods produced a welcome reunion in parts of New Mexico: the river once again connected with its floodplain forests, a vital component of its overall health.

The Rio Grande, the second largest river in the southwestern United States, boasts a remarkable bosque, or riverside cottonwood forest, which extends some 200 miles (320 kilometers) through New Mexico – from Santa Fe south to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, famed for its overwintering population of sandhill cranes.

By some accounts, the bosque of the Rio Grande is the largest continuous cottonwood gallery forest in the world.

Derived from the Spanish word for woodlands, the bosque is literally a ribbon of green in the desert landscape.

For many centuries, its tiered layers of trees and vegetation, all nourished by the river’s natural floods, provided habitats and homes for a rich diversity of birds and wildlife, including whooping cranes, wild turkeys, beaver and mink.  Some 24 native fish species lived in the river and the adjacent wetlands of the bosque.

But the construction of dams and levees over the last half-century has severed the river’s natural connection to its floodplain forest.  The annual spring flood, driven by melting snows in the headwaters, largely disappeared as dams captured and stored the floodwaters.  Without the nutrient-rich sediment brought in by the annual floods, the riverside ecosystem – and its diversity of life – declined.

And so it was with some excitement that I headed to the middle Rio Grande on Saturday, September 14, when the river was raging higher than it had in decades.  The floodwaters pouring out of the canyons upstream had dumped an enormous volume of water into its channel.

While Cochiti Dam upstream of Albuquerque and the levees along the floodplain did their jobs of preventing catastrophic flooding of property through the middle Rio Grande valley, the river flowed high enough in places to spread out into its adjacent forests, rejuvenating this aquatic ecosystem after years of drought.

The bosque, shown here 25 miles south of Albuquerque, gets a welcome flush of nutrient-rich floodwaters. Photo by Sandra Postel
The bosque, shown here 25 miles south of Albuquerque, gets a welcome flush of nutrient-rich floodwaters. Photo by Sandra Postel

I walked through the bosque outside the town of Los Lunas, some 25 miles south of Albuquerque.  There, stately cottonwoods stood in saturated soils, soaking up vital nutrients as they drank in the floodwaters.  The groundwater below, which sustains the trees through the dry spells, was getting replenished as the floodwaters seeped into the earth.

The scene was a timely reminder of the bosque’s ecological needs, because Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry has proposed a new and much debated vision for the city’s stretch of the bosque that, in its attempts to make the river more accessible to residents, risks further damage to this unique ecosystem’s long-term health.

Chiming in on the debate is Estella Leopold, whose father, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, was instrumental in developing a plan to conserve the bosque of the Rio Grande.  In 1918-1919, Leopold served as Secretary of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and pushed for the creation of a bosque nature park that would protect this critical ecosystem – a vision realized in 1983 when the New Mexico legislature created a state park encompassing 4,300 acres (1,740 hectares) of the riverside woodland.

In a recent letter to the mayor, Dr. Leopold, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote:

“We at the Aldo Leopold Foundation are deeply alarmed by the new plan that would, if enacted, work against the goal of having an extensive area of wild nature and bird habitat along the river bordering the city.  We feel that the Rio Grande Vision discards the protective mechanisms for the existing park—the city’s Bosque action plan which established policies to ensure the conservation of the bosque in its natural state.”

Preservation of the Rio Grande’s cottonwood forests will require not only a more ecologically sound strategy for people’s use of them, but changes in river management as well.

But hopefully the city with the Rio Grande running through it will step back and develop a plan that preserves the legacy of Aldo Leopold and his land ethic – and protects the ecological richness of the bosque for generations to come.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Heather

    Great article and I agree the last thing we need along our Rio Grande bosque is development. It is such a beautiful sanctuary within the city and has so many important natural uses, to us, but mainly to the animals species that call the bosque home. I sincerely hope it does not become developed because we need more wild places in our world, not less. If someone wants to go to a riverwalk have them spend their dollars in San Antonio.

  • Jeremy Barnes

    The Bosque is one of the last wild places in urban America, it needs to be protected as such, and reserved for wild animals and birds. We don’t need paved roads or an urbanized park. We already have a beautiful and unique space. The Bosque doesn’t need an architect or local government to attempt to manicure into an artificial idea of beauty. The mayor of Albuquerque’s Bosque development plan is hubristic, and a waste of money that doesn’t correspond the fiscal conservatism that he claims to adhere to.

  • Kathleen Cain

    Thank you so much for picking up on this so-important story about taking care of the bosque. I have every faith in the people of Albuquerque, who have been working so hard to speak up for the river and the riparian habitat, who have become the voice of Nature. Thank you for joining the chorus!

  • Endion

    Bosque Te Quiero!

    One of the main arguments for this development plan is to increase accessibility to the bosque. I have never, or know anyone who has ever, had a problem access the bosque and enjoying what is already there. Several areas around Tingley Beach have areas for wheelchairs, paths and entrances for runners and a paved bike trail. That is enough.
    We proudly call our state the “Land of Enchantment”, but what’s in a name if we don’t protect and care for the places that are enchanting?

  • Shorty

    What kind of idiot develops a natural oasis in a desert? Albuquerque is located in a high altitude desert climate. Not much of a foothold for wildlife to cling to in this arid climate. The Rio Grande is a wonderful gift of nature that provides that oasis for them, and for the citizens to enjoy in it’s natural state in the heart of the city. That’s unheard of in this country. Now some greedy folks want to remove trees from this natural oasis and replace them with shops, replace the natural dirt of the walking paths that also serve the wildlife with gravel. Obscure the open scenery of the flood plain with yet more bridges, when the present bridges already provide the means to view wildlife. Why? In hopes of making money from the development while we have idle storefronts all over town. What kind of person despoils a natural oasis in a desert and takes away that experience of experiencing raw nature from city kids to make an easy buck? Republican real estate speculators like Mayor RJ Berry, that’s who. He values the almighty dollar over the beauty and solace of our desert oasis along the Rio Grande. One of a few rift valleys IN THE ENTIRE WORLD, and the only one of it’s kind in North America. This would be like developing the Serengeti in Africa. It’s madness.

  • Chad

    Thanks for the wonderful article! Mayor Berry’s proposal seems to be succeeding wildly in getting people to pay attention to the treasure we have in the middle of our city – and all without a single bulldozer humming to life! I hope that this movement catalyzes our collective will to preserve, protect, and restore the Bosque as a source of life and health for the entire city.

  • Virginia

    Aside from the natural beauty and habitat for the native flora and fauna, the bosque serves as a buffer between the river and surrounding areas in times of flooding. The water replenishes the habitat and this buffer zone protects surround areas that are presumably developed from dangerous flooding. Nothing protects as well as this natural system. It would be foolish and short-sighted to tamper with it, especially given the fragile desert ecosystem here in New Mexico.

  • eliza

    The bosque in Albuquerque already has an extensive system of accessible (paved) trails and hiking / mountain bike trails along the river, with multiple parking lots and access points, which provide a wonderful opportunity to experience the bosque all year around. The Rio Grande Nature Center – located in the bosque – quite adequately provides benches, trash receptacles, parking and interpretative signage. There is no need for additional ‘urban park development’, that would only attempt to benefit the legacy of the current mayor, but would be potentially quite damaging for the riparian ecosystem of the area.

  • Alex Limkin

    There will be no leaf big enough to cover our shame if we permit this natural landscape, unique among all American cities, to fall beneath the blades of the developers in the name of “access.” Only those who have never taken the trouble to drive, walk, bike, or take the bus to the Bosque, have any idea just how much access exists. The Bosque is the least closed off and inaccessible feature of our city. Just try any of the doors to our big buildings after hours and see how access compares. In the Bosque, you can walk any path, climb any tree, and experience the beauty that is there for all to enjoy. Before you give this up in the name of “access”, go and enjoy it! See what exists! Walk the simple dirt trails and enjoy a view of the river. See why this landscape should remain a protected heritage site, not turned into Central Park.

  • Ken

    Very nicely written! The Rio Grande in its natural state is driven by flooding, and the bosque is what is left of its floodplain. Many people visit and recreate in the bosque; there is no need to make it anything different than what it currently is. Many animals make it their home. It is wonderful to leave our homes and enter into theirs – see their paw prints, the chewed cottonwoods and their scat. It’s a place to get away from people and listen to the water, to birds and nothing at all. Come and visit it if you haven’t been, and you’ll see what a gem it is!

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