The Rio Grande: where did the water go?

Anyone standing on the banks of the Rio Grande upstream of Presidio might be excused for asking what is great or wild (Mexicans call it the “Wild River of the North”) about the sluggish stream of brown water flowing by. Fortunately, the brown stream is joined at this point by the fast-flowing Rio Conchos, three times wider. This life-saving tributary, which rises in the Copper Canyon sierra 348 miles away, revitalizes the Rio Grande as it continues its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.

Rio Grande near Candelaria

Rio Grande near Candelaria

To find out how the Rio Grande got to this sorry state I recently drove to the source of the river in Colorado. I then followed it as it flowed south through New Mexico turning southeast in El Paso, still without doubt a river. But But, at my last sighting, to the north of Candelaria, the river was no more. It is this level of flow that appears at Presidio.

To get to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, I drove 676 miles to Creede, Colorado. I was fortunate to have made contact with Sarah Hext, for many years a teacher in Alpine, who has a house near Creede.It was she, who was able, through a friend, to line up two ATVS.

Stony Pass, near the headwaters

Stony Pass, near the headwaters

The Rio Grande headwaters lie on the east slope of the San Juan Mountains in the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado, not far from Creede. Access is via Forest Road 562 that leads to Stony Pass (12,650 feet) on the Continental Divide. In addition to ATVs, jeeps and trucks, there were cyclists ascending from Silverton to the west, and through-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail, which crosses Stony Pass here. It’s a popular destination, especially for jeeps and ATVS.

Carpet of Flowers

Carpet of Flowers

The mountain landscape was mainly green as we bumped along, and the open spaces carpeted with flowers, owing to unusual rains. The forested slope were recovering well from a huge fire of three years previously, except for older spruce trees that were dying from beetle attacks. Marmots scuttled across the track on their way to their holes. It is here that three streams (Bear Creek, Pole Creek and West Pole Creek) come together and, where this happens, the Rio Grande is born. Their is energy and purpose in this flow of water, the start of a 1,896-mile journey to the Gulf Of Mexico.

Bear Creek, "energy and purpose".

Bear Creek, “energy and purpose”.

I drove south and crossed back into New Mexico. Neat Taos, the Rio Grande is joined by the Red River, and near here is the impressive 800-foot Rio Grande Gorge, spanned by a metal bridge. South of Taos our river started to show its spirit; this stretch has a Class III rafting classification.

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

I drove south and crossed back into New Mexico. Near Taos, the Rio Grande is joined by the Red River and near here is the impressive 800-foot Rio Grande Gorge, popular with rafters. South of Taos, our river started to show its spirit; this stretch has a Class III rafting classification.

Much further south in New Mexico, I visited Elephant Butte dam. This large dam,, built in 1916, covers a total of 34,521 acres, when full. Today is was only 155 full,and the overall depth was 4 feet. Because of this, I was surprised to see  a substantial flow of water exiting below the dam, a fast flow, 50 feet wide.

It is this area of New Mexico south of Elephant Butte dam that is the subject of an escalating war of words between Texas and New Mexico. Both are signatories, with Colorado, to the Water Contract of 1938, which sought to distribute equitably the flow of water from the Rio Grande. The problem is that the Contract did not specify exactly how much water Texas, the most downstream state, would be entitled to. Historically, 43% of the river’s water has gone to Texas, and 57% to New Mexico.

Elephant Butte dam

Elephant Butte dam

Now Texas is asserting that New Mexico farmers, south of Elephant Butte dam, are syphoning off huge amount of water that should be flowing to El Paso. Texas has allocated $5 to fight this claim in court.  New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, has stated “not one more drop of water will be released”(to Texas).

At my next stop, just west of El Paso, a substantial flow of water, muddy due to  the recent rains, flowed under Jose Zamora Bridge. Shortly after, the river becomes canalizedand lined by concrete as it flows through El Paso. It is impossible to get a photograph of the river here since an 18-foot high wire mesh fence lines the river bank, and railroad tracks also prevent access. At Fabens, 30 mileswest, there is sufficient flow to irrigate riverside fields for cotton growing. The fence is still in position here.

West of El Paso, "a substantial flow"

West of El Paso, “a substantial flow”

Downstream from Fort Quitman (20 miles south of Sierra Blanca), and before it reaches the village of Porvenir, site of a massacre in 1918, and later the old military post of Candelaria. the river enters into what has become known as the Forgotten Reach. At this point, choked with constantly advancing tamarisk trees, it loses force and direction as it multiplies into numerous small streams. It emerges, almost sucked dry, upstream from Candelaria as a gentle, small stream, ankle-deep as it widens or jumpable at narrow sections. The tamarisk,   tamarix ramosissima, or salt cedar, is a major scourge of rivers in western states.

But, there is some good news. According to Raymond Skiles, Wildlife Biologist at Big Bend National Park, there is hope that the rampant expansion of the tamarisk may be contained and cut back. The weapon is a beetle, imported from Crete, which loves to eat tamarisk leaves. Through constant defoliation by the hungry beetles, the salt cedars will become largely suppressed. Here’s hoping we may get our river back to something like its old self.

Rio Conchos (center) joins Rio Grande (on right)

Rio Conchos (center) joins Rio Grande (on right)

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change

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