El Rio Bravo

Guest post by Environmental Defense Fund's Great Lakes Regional Director Karen Chapman.

How do you allocate water for the environment in an over-allocated, degraded river with a politically-charged history? The Rio Grande provides just such a challenge.

El “Río Bravo”

From its origin in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica beach near Brownsville, Texas, the Rio Grande winds 1,885 miles, 1,250 of which form the border between the US and Mexico. The Rio Grande is the fourth longest river in the U.S. and it supplies drinking and irrigation water for over 9 million people in the border region alone.

The Rio Grande has always been a river marked by periods of severe drought and floods. The construction of Elephant Butte dam in New Mexico in 1916 was the first and most dramatic attempt to curb such unpredictable cycles and tame the river for irrigation. In Mexico the river is called el “Río Bravo” – or “angry river,” for its historic floods. But the dam was the first step in altering a free-flowing river to a controlled system.

Taming a Wild River

Robbed of floodwaters, the river could no longer perform its function of moving sediment and rocks downstream that accumulated at the mouths of arroyos. Many backwater ponds and sloughs disappeared along with the water fowl and aquatic wildlife that depended on them. Cottonwood and willow gallery forests dependent on regular floods for seed distribution and establishment also began to retreat, and detrimental invasive species like saltcedar, Russian olive and phragmites took over the riparian zone.  Fish and wildlife populations also changed; the Silvery Minnow and Willow Flycatcher disappeared from Texas, and many bird and mammal game species dwindled dramatically.

Over the past decade the Rio Grande has continued to experience its share of droughts, minor floods, and political wrangling over water resources and border security concerns. In 2000, and again in 2010, U.S. and Mexican environmental officials issued commitments to enhance Rio Grande water resources and the shared ecosystem. Stakeholders hope that these commitments will someday provide funding for research and restoration activities. Most recently, discussion has centered on the idea of a huge, multi-million acre binational park spanning the border, encompassing existing, parallel protected lands with the Rio Grande as centerpiece.

Bringing Back an Icon

Conservation groups – including EDF – and many other public and private agencies continue to renew and strengthen alliances on behalf of the Rio Grande, and discuss a shared vision for what the Rio Grande could be again. While it is unlikely that the river as a whole will be returned to a more natural state, partners believe that in places like West Texas this may be possible, and various efforts are making headway.

 Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy of Texas partnered with ranchers and farmers from West Texas to form the Trans Pecos Water Trust in 2005. The Trust’s purpose was to acquire water rights in the Rio Grande mainstem and tributaries and dedicate them to instream flow. Five years later the Trust is a great success, having acquired through lease close to 2,000 acre feet of water that is now dedicated to beneficial use as instream flow. The Trans Pecos Water and Land Trust, as it is now known, also owns and manages a unique preserve on Alamito Creek, a tributary to the Rio Grande and a beautifully pristine habitat still harboring old growth cottonwood gallery forests.

Federal government efforts to pilot an endangered species in the Rio Grande have also met with initial success. Experimental populations of the Silvery Minnow were released into the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park in December 2008, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that so far, the fish appear to have successfully spawned. Biologists are watching the minnow with interest.

In addition, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Service, through Big Bend in collaboration with many others, have recently formed a Science Team and a Policy Committee that are working together to define what healthy flows might mean for the Rio Grande. The teams are exploring ways to link environmental goals with existing deliveries of water made from Mexico to the U.S. so that both countries benefit, while not compromising irrigation uses.

Balancing Act

This will be a tricky balance. There are many unknowns, never enough money, and more than enough uncertain politics, but team members are committed. The Rio Grande –Texas icon, national treasure, and vital resource to millions of people – deserves no less.

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