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Puzzling Over the Rio Grande

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s dam at Angostura, near Algodones, has been in place so long that it is hard to think about what the Rio Grande might look like without its influence. (roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s dam at Angostura, near Algodones, has been in place so long that it is hard to think about what the Rio Grande might look like without its influence. (roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

A puzzling thing happened in December on the Rio Grande that illustrates the dilemma we will face as we try to manage central New Mexico’s defining river in 2013.

After a year of near-record drought, the river began rising Nov. 20. Through late December, the drought-starved ribbon of water that cuts through the heart of Albuquerque looked like its old self again, with flows near normal for this time of year.

Here is the question: Is the Rio Grande plumbing or a living river? How do we juggle those sometimes overlapping but sometimes sharply conflicting ideas?

Our pursuit of an answer to that question is likely to play out in 2013 as a gnarly struggle over the federal Endangered Species Act’s requirement that we try to keep the Rio Grande silvery minnow alive, using the plumbing to put water in the river for the fish. But how much, where and when remains unsettled.

An acquaintance recently passed along a great quote from Canadian writer Don Gayton: “How do I define the ‘natural state’ of an ecosystem that depends on human intervention for its health?”

The Endangered Species Act, signed by Richard Nixon 39 years ago last Friday, is intended to protect “the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend.” But given Gayton’s comment, the question becomes, what ecosystem are we talking about?

Humans have been tweaking the Rio Grande and the hydrologic system that surrounds it for so long and in so many ways that we sometimes fail to recognize its current state as a largely human creation.

Thus the rock and brush weirs built in centuries past to divert Rio Grande water to the valley’s farms transitioned to concrete, and the shallow valley wells became the behemoths that pump groundwater today, and the old septic pits became our aging but modern sewage treatment plant.

We added dams upstream – to store water for later use, to knock down the floods that periodically devastated the communities built on the river’s banks.

At each step of the way, we wrapped Albuquerque and the rest of central New Mexico’s population centers around the Rio Grande and its tributaries, taking our water from the river to meet our needs, using its flows to carry away our waste – the Rio Grande as plumbing.

Here’s how far our efforts at plumbing the Rio Grande have come: Every year at this time, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation hire crews to dig a channel south of San Marcial in central New Mexico so the Rio Grande can find its way to Elephant Butte Reservoir.

And so it was, as plumbing, that the Rio Grande began rising in November.

The reason for the river’s November-December surge was a small stockpile of water the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had stashed during the depth of last year’s drought in El Vado Reservoir, up on the Rio Chama. Its purpose was ensure there was enough to complete the irrigation season for the pueblos on the Rio Grande, which have the most senior water rights on the river. With the irrigation season over, the bureau in November began releasing the leftovers, moving the water downstream to Elephant Butte Reservoir north of Las Cruces to meet New Mexico’s obligations under the Rio Grande compact to deliver water to southern New Mexico and Texas.

Drought all year had kept the river through Albuquerque well below normal levels. But suddenly it was flirting with normal levels at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Central Avenue gauge.

It looked nice, but the Rio Grande was simply plumbing at this point, a big earthen canal being used to move water from one dam to another. And yet, for a month, it looked not like plumbing, but like a river.

It is not the first time the function of plumbing and our conception of what a river looks like have overlapped on the river during the drought of 2012.

An analysis by David Gensler, the hydrologist for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, concluded that plumbing served nature repeatedly this year. Gensler’s computer simulation of 2012 river flows concluded that, were it not for farmers storing water and then running it down the Rio Grande to meet downstream irrigation needs, the river would have been completely dry through Albuquerque at times this summer, not much of a living river at all.

In particular, without that water, the river itself would have fallen far short of the requirements under the current Endangered Species Act rules intended to keep this stretch of the river wet as a refuge for the imperiled Rio Grande silvery minnow.

To be clear, all the levees, dams and diversions we’ve built to turn the Rio Grande into plumbing are what’s caused the silvery minnow’s problems in the first place, so tweaking the plumbing to keep a short stretch of river wet seems now to be the tiny fish’s only hope.

But that’s the river we’ve got now. We’ve already built the farms and cities that depend on the plumbing. Now we can only hope we figure out how to best use that plumbing in a way that keeps the sort of river we’d like to have flowing through our midst, alive.

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal


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