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ALGODONES – The kayaks and canoes spread across the Rio Grande downstream from the Baca Ranch were a sight to behold. It’s a wonder, I thought to myself as I floated along on a recent sunny afternoon, that you don’t see this more often.
“The river works magic on people,” said Dave Simon, New Mexico State Parks director from 2003 to 2010, “if you can just get out there.”
But “just get out there” is not, at this point, a trivial exercise for someone wanting to float the quiet waters of the Rio Grande through New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area.
There are few good places to put boats in the river and take them out, but the biggest hurdle seems to be cultural inertia. People don’t realize floating the Rio Grande is something you can do.
As Albuquerque struggles to envision its economic future, there is a wonky argument (which I’ll get to below) about the “amenity value” that could be provided by what Simon calls the “blue trail” through the metro area. But beyond the wonkishness or craven economic self interest, let’s point out that floating the Rio Grande is just plain fun. The shallow water makes it a poor waterway for motorized boating, but in a canoe or kayak, it’s a delight.
The boats of my afternoon armada, mostly from the Bernalillo-based float trip company aptly named Quiet Waters, were carrying visitors in town for a conference of nonprofit foundations. I tagged along because when someone says, “Hey, want to join us on a Rio Grande float trip for a couple of hours tomorrow afternoon?” it’s good practice, whenever possible, to answer “yes.”
Plus, I’ve been interested in the growing numbers of paddlers I see on the river that flows through our community, and a friend’s inflatable kayak with a paddle in my hands seemed like a good way to conduct the necessary research.
When Michael Hayes first set up temporary residence here in the summer of 2007, in a camper truck at Coronado State Park in Bernalillo, he was the only one with canoes. “I stopped at Coronado and said, ‘Oh, cool, there’s a river there,’ ” Hayes recalled in a recent interview.
On a combination epic road trip and search for a new place to live and a new way to make a living, Hayes found himself looking down at a Rio Grande that seemed inviting, but with a catch. There was no access from the campground down to the river.
Prodded by Hayes’ questions, the campground manager cut a trail, and a veil pulled back on the metro area’s Rio Grande boating scene.
At first, Hayes was just floating friends down the river, but in 2010, Quiet Waters became his new way of making a living.
Hayes, who runs most of his float trips on the stretch of river from Algodones to Alameda, has had to cope with drought, occasional bosque fire restrictions that closed access to the river, and a lack of good places to put boats in and take them out.
There have been periodic attempts to expand boat access, including a boat ramp proposal in Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s recent “Rio Grande Vision” conceptual plan for trails and other bosque development, which has been slow to get off the ground. But Hayes has persevered, with growing traffic just about every year, he said. He’s also seen more and more private boaters out enjoying the float.
“When you’re out on the river, it’s beautiful,” said Reed Benson, a University of New Mexico law professor who both studies the river and observes it firsthand from the seat of his own kayak.
A friend of mine who occasionally plays a role in recruiting Ph.D.-level talent for an Albuquerque employer told me his introduction routine generally includes a trip to the Rio Grande Nature Center and a walk to the Rio Grande. This particular employer can’t quite compete with larger players on salary, so my friend is offering up what economists call the “amenity value” of the river.
I believe that Hayes, Benson, Simon and others opening that river up for paddle sports are increasing that amenity value, beyond the direct flow of dollars to Quiet Waters itself. To stand on the river’s bank and watch a canoe float past is to extend our understanding of the role the river can play in the life of our community.
As Albuquerque leaders push “innovation” as a potential economic engine, we need to recognize what Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution calls “demographic preferences for quality places.” Simon’s idea of the Rio Grande as a recreational corridor can be a piece of that.
The connection between community economic development and river recreation is unquestioned in Colorado, where state law explicitly recognizes the use of water for recreation as a “beneficial use,” a legal bridge we’ve not yet crossed here in New Mexico, according to Benson.
More and better access points for boaters is still a major problem, according to Simon. Given the economic benefits to the community – both paddlers’ direct spending but also the increasing amenity value – improving access to the river and encouraging people like Hayes and Benson is “a no-brainer,” Simon said.