The first time I saw the channel of the Rio Grande completely dry, I was stunned. Here was the second largest river in the Southwest, which flows through three U.S. states and Mexico, and instead of water between its banks there were tire tracks. And I wasn’t standing at the tail end of the river, but rather on a bridge in central New Mexico, in the Rio Grande’s middle reach. For a freshwater conservationist, it was a sad sight.
Even worse, it was not an aberration. Each year, portions of the Middle Rio Grande dry up when its flows are diverted into irrigation canals for delivery to farmers in the valley. A few miles of the channel might dry up for a couple of weeks, or, if the monsoon rains are disappointing and irrigation demands are high, the dry stretch might extend thirty or more miles for much of the summer. Either way, for a time the river is no more.
So earlier this year when I learned about an innovative idea spearheaded by Audubon New Mexico to return some flow to the Rio Grande at its driest time of year, I felt a surge of hope for the river and the life it supports—from native fish like the Rio Grande silvery minnow to birds like the Southwestern Willow flycatcher, both federally endangered and dependent on the Rio Grande for habitat.
Audubon New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based non-profit conservation organization, had reached out to Native American tribes in the Middle Rio Grande Valley with a proposition: if the tribes transfer to Audubon a portion of their allotted water from the San Juan-Chama diversion project, which brings New Mexico’s share of Colorado River water into the state, Audubon would ensure that the water benefits the Rio Grande and seek funding for habitat restoration on tribal lands.
The idea struck a positive chord with a number of the tribes, and a unique partnership was born. Four Middle Rio Grande Pueblos — Sandia, Isleta, Santa Ana and Cochiti — joined together and each supplied 100 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama water. Before summer, the 400 acre-feet from the four tribes was augmented by a nearly equal donation of surplus water by the Club at Las Campanas, a private Santa Fe golf club, bringing the total volume of water to benefit the Rio Grande to nearly 800 acre-feet, or more than 260 million gallons (980 million liters).
“We will increase flow in the river channel for a 35-mile stretch for nearly 24 days,” said Julie Weinstein, Audubon New Mexico’s Executive Director, in a statement earlier this month. The organization worked closely with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District to determine the best sites to deliver water back to the river to maximize ecological value.
The Rio Grande’s corridor through New Mexico supports over 200,000 waterfowl and 18,000 greater sandhill cranes. It provides the largest number of contiguous breeding territories for both the endangered flycatcher and the threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo in their entire range.
With over 80 percent of the wetland and riparian habitat gone along the river in New Mexico, sustaining and rebuilding habitat is crucial. As part of this collaboration with Audubon, the Pueblo of Santa Ana is planting trees and restoring habitat along the river.
As water stress intensifies in the western United States, saving desert rivers requires securing enough flow at the right time and in the places so as to enable the fish, birds, and wildlife that rely on those aquatic habitats to nest, breed and feed.
This Audubon initiative represents yet another creative approach to restore flow to a depleted river. It is the first-ever use of the Abiquiú Reservoir’s “environmental pool,” created in 2005 to help provide ecological flows for the Rio Grande. And it represents a unique partnership of diverse interests in the river.
“The Rio Grande is sacred to the people of Sandia Pueblo, as is the environment it provides,” said the pueblo’s governor, Isaac Lujan, in a statement announcing the project. “Sandia hopes this donation can be used as an example of what can be done for the health of the river and the community when stakeholders work together.”
The water Audubon secured was temporarily stored at Abiquiú Reservoir north of Santa Fe and then released to flow downstream later in the summer. After the water’s use for irrigation, engineers are returning it to the river at strategic locations so as to maximize habitat benefits and channel flows.
With the precedent set by this pilot project, the door is open for more partnerships to secure more flow to improve the health of the Rio Grande.
Change the Course, the national freshwater restoration initiative founded by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the National Geographic Society and Participant Media, and which I helped to create, provided financial support to Audubon New Mexico’s innovative project. With our conservation partners, Change the Course has restored billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers, including the Verde and San Pedro in Arizona, the Yampa in Colorado, the Colorado Delta in northwestern Mexico, the Flint in Georgia, the Gila in New Mexico – and now the Rio Grande.
River by river, the movement of water stewardship and restoration we are working to build is growing.
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 initiative that has restored billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. She is working on a book about repairing and replenishing the water cycle.