Restoring New Mexico’s Ribbon of Life - the Rio Grande

Ensuring the West’s historic and cultural "living treasure" doesn’t dry up.

On July 17, 2018, Audubon New Mexico initiated the release of 324 million gallons of stored reservoir water into a 34-mile drying stretch of the Middle Rio Grande, augmenting vital streamflow needed to sustain century old cottonwoods, wetlands, birds and wildlife in stretches of the river that are experiencing severe drying due to drought conditions.

This water release involves the first-ever partnership between a non-governmental organization, Audubon, and municipalities for restoring flows on the Rio Grande in New Mexico. (Partners releasing water included Belen - 97 million gallons of water, Bernalillo and Los Lunas - 65 million gallons, and the Club at Las Campanas - 97 million gallons from the Jicarilla Apache Nation.)

The water release comes at a time when half of New Mexico is experiencing extreme drought and the Rio Grande is facing severely dry conditions, with climatic conditions not seen since the unprecedented drought of 2003, and over 30 miles of dry river south of Albuquerque. While western water has long been marked with conflict, the ongoing drought has ushered in a new era of cooperation, especially along lifeline rivers like the Rio Grande and Colorado, where government agencies, communities, tribes and businesses are working together to maintain flows. This project demonstrates how innovative and voluntary solutions are key to restoring rivers and protecting the ecosystems and economies they support. To read the entire press release, click here.

Why Audubon Cares about the Rio Grande
The Rio Grande is one of the most iconic rivers in the western United States. As the second longest river in the continental U.S., and the fifth longest river in North America. The Rio Grande ecosystem supplies irrigation for food production in the U.S. The Rio Grande also supports large-scale ecological processes like continental migration of hundreds of thousands of birds, bats and butterflies, including vital habitat for seven of the eight Audubon priority bird species for riparian areas in the west.

The history of the West is etched in rivers and its continuing legacy depends on them. History abounds in and around the Rio Grande. The river is a living treasure—fragments of pottery, petroglyphs, and adobe houses tell the stories of ancient people who lived along the Rio Grande thousands of years ago. Archeologists and historians have studied the Middle and Upper Rio Grande basins, with a long history of human occupation by the Hokoman, Mogollon, Pueblo, and Hispanic people, for more than a century. Many Hispanic and Native American cultures have depended on the Rio Grande for spiritual tradition, cultural heritage and livelihoods and still do today. In the Rio Grande, flows vital environmental history that can provide a better understanding of our own history by placing it in an environmental context.  A healthy river is a “living treasure,” critical to preserving and sustaining the culture, spiritual heritage, and history of the U.S. along with providing necessary nourishment for all wildlife and people.

The Rio Grande Corridor in New Mexico is an important migratory, wintering, and nesting corridor within the arid intermountain west that supports over 200,000 waterfowl, 18,000 greater Sandhill Cranes and tens of thousands of other water birds and shorebirds. The Rio Grande delta above Elephant Butte Reservoir is home to the largest number of contiguous breeding territories for both the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the threatened Yellow-billed Cuckoo in their entire range (with the Gila River in New Mexico a close second). Yet over 80% of the historic wetland and riparian habitats of the Corridor have been lost and more than one-third of the Rio Grande’s 465-mile length in New Mexico is subject to even more river drying annually, including reaches within the Middle Rio Grande.

The Time to Save the Rio Grande Is Now
The Rio Grande is under duress due to over allocated water, crumbling infrastructure, and outdated water management laws and guidelines. These threats to the river, people and wildlife are compounded by the adverse consequences of climate change.  In the future, the Rio Grande will likely face longer droughts, larger floods, and shrinking snowpack. In 2014, drought led to one of the driest years in the 100-year record of river flow, and we sit here today in 2018, being faced with yet another drought with 3% snowpack and nearly 90% of our state in extreme drought status. Climate changes will continue to impact water supply, reservoir evaporation, influence flood control considerations, habitats, water quality, natural groundwater recharge and agricultural water demand.

Despite the demands on the Rio Grande and the grizzly future water supply scenarios, there are ample opportunities for proactive and meaningful conservation activities that will ensure a healthy future for the many bird and human communities that rely on this ribbon of life. In the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico, the native ecosystem and dependent farm communities have shown much resilience to past droughts. Every strategic conservation effort within this area provides additional long-term resilience. The time is ripe for innovative solutions to water shortages within the Rio Grande that benefit both people and birds and Audubon New Mexico is leading these efforts.

Audubon’s Legacy of Conservation on the Rio Grande
Audubon has been working to solve Rio Grande conservation issues for over 15 years. Early efforts included:  addressing the protection and conservation of the Rio Grande Silvery Minnow, precedent-setting environmental water rights transactions near Las Cruces with the International Boundary and Water Commission, engagement with the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program, and assistance with numerous restoration projects throughout the corridor.

Last week’s historic water release was yet, another example of our commitment to the river; to be active within the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico on many fronts, most notably environmental water transactions like the one announced last week, and policy transformation, habitat restoration, engagement with agency conservation efforts and education.

How you can help, right now