Flying into Albuquerque, one sees a green ribbon of fertility that contrasts sharply with the surrounding aridity: home as oasis. Or is it oasis as home? The same sense of well-being greets the modern traveler arriving by plane just as it did the early settlers arriving by foot or wagon.
Through time immemorial, the Rio Grande has been a symbol of life. The river carries with it the memory of all those who have come before and found respite in its cool dampness.
Albuquerque would not exist without the river’s lifeblood.
The river’s precious water was first diverted in prehistoric times when early Pueblo farmers depended on it for growing corn. Spanish colonists, applying lessons learned from the Moors, expanded the network of Pueblo ditches to spread the water onto their fields.
Acequia, the Spanish word for “irrigation canal,” derives from as-saquiya, the Arabic word for “water carrier.”
Even today, the deep wells that tap the underground aquifer, making settlement of the uplands on either side of the valley possible, are inextricably tied to the river.
Known to the Pueblos as P’osoge and to the Spanish as Rio Bravo del Norte, the Rio Grande has no rival for historical richness among the rivers of North America.
This historical richness is one of Albuquerque’s greatest assets. It is also one of Albuquerque’s most underdeveloped resources.
The potential to make Albuquerque into a destination has not yet been realized because, unlike Santa Fe, the grand spectrum of Albuquerque’s history has not been integrated into a compelling whole. Arriving at Albuquerque’s airport, there is no mistaking it with that of another city. You know you have arrived someplace special because the airport’s architecture and art collection both celebrate our unique history and sense of place.
But after a positive initial greeting, nothing entices visitors to stay and explore our city. Visitors tend to bypass Albuquerque for Santa Fe.
History comes alive when it is understood in the context of its environment.
The Rio Grande provides that context. It provides a thread for connecting the stories told by Albuquerque’s dispersed cultural institutions into a compelling whole.
The Albuquerque Museum tells part of the story, but so too does the Rio Grande Nature Center. The University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology tells part of the story, but so too does the new Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
In addition to water, the river also offers a gift of nature. Unlike most cities where nature is under assault, it is still possible to see herons, cranes and even bald eagles in the Rio Grande bosque that runs through the heart of Albuquerque.
Weaving together the cultural and natural histories of the Rio Grande would help Albuquerque become a destination.
By not celebrating the Rio Grande’s historical richness and ecological integrity, we lose the kind of city that not only attracts tourism, but also new business. Among the larger cities of the American Southwest, the Rio Grande is what makes Albuquerque unique in an increasingly generic world. If the Rio Grande is crisscrossed by freeways or converted into something it is not (think River Walk), then the integrity of the Rio Grande bosque will become further degraded through habitat fragmentation and Albuquerque will become just another Phoenix or San Antonio … .
It is said the land is the book of our lives, that we write our legacy on the land with our ethics, and that what is written on the land informs our descendants of the truth about us. Only the river is immortal.
The hydrologic cycle will continue, whatever the consequences of our contemporary choices. But the Rio Grande as a symbol of Albuquerque’s well-being must not be taken for granted. Too much is at stake.
We need to protect the Rio Grande so that future generations might continue to enjoy it. We need to protect the Rio Grande so that it always reminds us that progress is an empty word unless it is written with a fundamental respect for nature, our history and our quality of life.