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Rio Grande No Mas?

When does the Rio Grande become the Rio Gone? Maybe already.

By Rod Davis

It enters Texas from high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and finishes at the Gulf of Mexico, becoming the third-longest river system in the United States. By way of welcome, we trap it in concrete culverts at El Paso to avoid fighting over its bounty with Ciudad Juárez. We put up razor-wire fences to say who can cross it. For the remainder of its 1,254 miles, the effective border between Texas and Mexico, we literally suck the life out of it so aggressively that by the time it reaches its mouth at Boca Chica, it is a trickle of toxic, brackish slush. If that. For five months in 2001, and now again, this river whose history rivals or exceeds that of the great Mississippi-Missouri system has been strangled in its own ultra-saline estuary. It falls short of its own mouth.

I saw it last summer. On the U.S. side, at Boca Chica, I parked my SUV and walked across a dry, windswept sandbar to the edge of Mexico. A Confederate port was once there, scoured away long ago by a hurricane. In years past, I had waded into turbulent waters here, churned up by gulf currents hitting the river's final punch leaving the continent. A punch that allowed the river to wash away sandbars constantly being formed by the tides, so the waterways could meet as they had for thousands of years.

But on that day, what was left of the Rio Grande was more than 100 yards inland -- a tepid pool ringed by dead fish, old tires, cast-off shoes, plastic water jugs. Certainly there are worse tragedies to see in this life, but one that you could do without is seeing the most famous river in the Southwest dead at your feet.

Brave, Grand

Always the river has been used for commerce, for transportation, for irrigation, for washing, for drinking and as a sewer. In the 16th century, it defined the route of Spanish exploration, as for centuries before that it defined the location of the pueblos of northern New Mexico. Its waters carry the genes of conquest, defeat, valor, and treachery. Today it sustains the lives of about 13 million people across three U.S. states and five in Mexico. Yet it is not being sustained itself.

Paul Horgan famously styled it "Great River" in his lyrical, two-volume 1954 study, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History, perhaps the best book ever written about this or any other river. He roll calls the names by which it has been known -- Rio Bravo, Rio de las Palmas, P'osoge, Tiguex River, Rio Turbio, Rio Bravo del Norte and more, all testament to its ability to assume the guise of those who have need of it. In 1997, President Clinton selected the Rio Grande as one of 14 American Heritage Rivers. In Larry McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, the river, near Roma, provided the means for Danny Deck to drown his novel. Today, the river is so depleted from irrigation, salt cedar and municipal and industrial draws you'd be hard-pressed to get a postcard damp.

As such, the river has earned another name: endangered. Over the last decade, it has placed six times on lists of severely troubled waterways compiled by the environmental watchdog group American Rivers. The Rio Grande was among the top 10 endangered in 1993, 1994 and 2000 and was ranked in the next tier, the "threatened" list, in 1992, 1995 and 1996. So poor is the river's quality that it reaches out to what surrounds it. This year's inclusion of Big Bend National Park among the top 10 endangered national parks, as ranked by the National Parks Conservation Association, was based on the degradation of the Rio Grande, as well as air pollution.

The causes of the river's difficulties stem partly from nature, in the form of drought, but in the main have human causes. Basically, that's population growth. Texas' head count is predicted to climb to 37 million by 2050. The Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Hidalgo through Cameron counties, will more than double in population in that same period, to 3 million from the current 1.2 million. It was about 400,000 in the 1950s. And that's just on the U.S. side. Mexico is growing just as fast, and it is folly to consider the demands on the river as though it realized its banks were borders.

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 85 to 89 percent of the water taken from the river is used for irrigation, often for water-slurping crops and for corn and cotton fields kept alive by the ditches and pipelines that are as familiar landscape features along the border as the dirt trails and sensor towers of the INS. Although projections say irrigation use will lessen in the next 50 years, that's because cities will be expanding, taking in more agricultural areas.

"Farmland is disappearing at an alarming rate in the basin, largely for subdivisions," said Bess Metcalf, U.S. co-director of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition. "Population growth and the increasing competition for the river as a resource is the overriding issue, and how that reality complicates efforts to restore the river to some semblance of ecological health. Urbanization also plays a role in the disappearance of habitat."

But irrigation is the life's blood of border economies. Without it there were would be no labor-intensive melon, onion or lettuce fields that provide jobs, low-paying as they are, to campesinos. Without water from the river, the cultures that have evolved around the migrant enclaves in places like San Juan del Valle, home of the United Farm Worker regional headquarters on César Chávez Avenue, will vanish. Nor would there be the farms that have sustained both Latino and Anglo families along the border for many decades.

There wouldn't be cities, either, those booming areas in the semiarid Southwest that often seem to forget that water doesn’t grow on trees. In El Paso, which takes about 40 percent of its municipal water from the river, there are already plans to purchase "water ranches" to obtain groundwater access to supplement the growth of the urban sprawl. In Laredo, where 100 percent of the water comes from the river -- the case for most cities below the Amistad and Falcon dams -- the time is coming when water shortages are a certainty. The time may also be coming when the final fate of the river will come down to battles over providing drinking water to the cities or irrigation to the cash crops in the fields.

Farmers, cities and water ranches that specialize in selling water rights up and downstream, state to state, take away precious acre-feet all along the 1,900-mile run. For a river famously prone to flow fluctuations and periodic low patches or flooding even without human "management," the additional draw-offs are, not to overdo the analogy, vampirish. As for fish, waterfowl and other riverine fauna and flora, they have no water rights -- and no chance.

Compound Fractures

It's not just what is being taken out, but what is being put in. Recent studies show very high amounts of arsenic, mercury, copper, selenium and antimony sediment from current or long-closed mines. You'd have to be crazy, or very poor, or unable to read the warning signs on the U.S. side, to eat any fish from the river, and yet it continues to be fished. Yet even then the available species are threatened, all the way to the Laguna Madre at the coast, where loss of adequate fresh water from the Rio Grande means the once-rich estuaries have lost their balance with the sea water and are lethally saline.

The river water is also being leached away by "exotic" or nonnative species, principally salt cedar, scraggly sponges of trees that are especially hard on the western end of the river, where the water tends to run lower. Other species, such as hydrilla, which grows from the bottom and water hyacinths, which mass at the top, clog the flow and periodically must be removed. These invaders have gotten so thick in the lower valley riverbed that giant machines to cut them down have on occasion become trapped overnight as the masses of vegetation shift around in the slow current. The machines themselves then must be cut free. And when the vegetation is cut down, moving their bulk downstream requires up to a 30 percent increase in the prevailing flow -- from where does that extra water come?

Compounding those impediments is silt runoff from agriculture. Compounding that is a drought going strong into its second decade. Reservoirs all along the route are at critically low levels because of the drought, and this year there was very low snowpack at the Colorado headwaters. Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico was expected to drop to 25 percent volume this summer, and it is hardly unique along the river's basin. Added to that is increased demand for water in times of drought and high heat -- a vicious cycle that bludgeons all hopes of raising the water levels in any kind of natural way.

The failure of the river at its mouth is the precise locus at which all these factors gather with geometric amplification in one catastrophic fait accompli.

Not Even in Name

And consider this. Although the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition sponsors an annual Dia del Rio (October 19 this year), the group, like others, has had to give up on a cherished notion: that is in fact a "whole" river. "It is managed in fragments, and segmented by dams," said Metcalf. "It is not the wild and untamed river it used to be."

The first half essentially stops at El Paso, already badly depleted and now canalized. After Fort Quitman it's virtually a ghost river for 250 miles until it receives new life from the Rio Conchos just above Ojinaga/Presidio. It gets another shot west of Del Rio when the Pecos and Devils rivers feed in, and another from the Rio San Juan just before Brownsville, where there are currently plans to build a weir.

Yet the tributaries themselves are troubled, especially the Conchos coming down from the Sierra Madre Occidental. It now supplies less than 40 percent of the flow below Presidio, down from its historical input of about two-thirds. In June 2001, the Rio Grande reached a historic low flow in the Big Bend of just 25 cubic feet per second, lower even than during the drought of the 1950s. The flow at its mouth, now, is zero.

"It's hardly even a river anymore," says Larry McKinney, senior director of aquatic resources for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "It's more a managed irrigation ditch. It's actually become three or four rivers."

McKinney, who said he "can't stand" to visit the dried-up mouth of the Rio Grande at Boca Chica, thinks identity itself is in question. "Slowly but steadily, it is losing most of the criteria that define a river -- that it has to have water in it, and that it reaches its end at its mouth." Heroic efforts at conservation, efficiency and cooperation with Mexico could help, he says, but not without some sea changes in public awareness.

"We've got to have a broad-based watershed approach, which we don't have now," says Jim Earhart, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo. He added that the urgency of water problems near Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, where the river is particularly foul and growth is full tilt, has created "more recognition of the problem than there was. People don't joke about it anymore."

Virtually all groups, public or private, studying the river share grim assessments. "The situation is extremely dire," says Karen Chapman, assistant director of the Austin-based Texas Center for Policy Studies. "The system has been so altered we're never going to get it back the way it was before. The real question is how do we manage the river -- Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Mexico. It's both an ecologically viable system and a system that supplies water to people. It's divvied up so many times, and there are so many inefficiencies. Management is lost in a quagmire of agreements.

"But we shouldn't give up on it yet," she adds. "There's a rising groundswell of support to think of the river as a nature system and not just a water conveyance system."

Then there are the neighbors. The bordering states to the river are constantly fighting Texas, and each other, over who owns what rights. It gets vicious. The U.S. and Mexican governments are at odds over Mexico’s debt of 1.4 million acre-feet of water, mostly from the state of Chihuahua, based on a formula worked out in a 1944 treaty, one of several, including the 1906 Rio Grande Treaty, which govern the water's allocation between the U.S. and Mexico. In a time in which Mexico itself is suffering from the same kind of drought as Texas, there is a sadness to this dispute, for whichever party prevails, certainly the other will suffer. This is the nature of the crisis.

The agencies that try to make this work also carry a tone of 11th-hour desperation. Keeping track of them is difficult: the International Boundary and Water Commission, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Texas Water Development Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Department of Agriculture, the EPA and sundry others, not to mention cities, counties and water districts along the way. There are also the agencies of other states and of Mexico and its border states.

What is considered one of the best current policy documents in Texas, the master plan from the Rio Grande Regional Water Planning Group, says major efforts must be addressed in at least five areas: getting more water from the river, conserving it better, using it more efficiently in irrigation, finding new sources of it, and knowing that competition for river water from multiple users will only grow more intense. Looked at another way, this is a plan for a very limited and troubled future.

Going, Going…

Can it have come to this? How can the Rio Grande be gone? It has linked the cultures of two countries in a way that exists nowhere else for either of them. History was played out all along the river. Two major battles were joined near the mouth: Palo Alto, the first serious engagement of the Mexican-American War in 1846; and in 1865, Palmito Hill, the last battle of the Civil War. At the opposite end of the state, Pancho Villa's 1916 raid crossed at El Paso, and myriad personal and family histories have begun and ended at the river’s divide. The river that made the river kingdoms of New Mexico has made the Valley a kingdom in its own way, the virtual fusion of Texas and Mexico for hundreds of miles and famously difficult for its residents to truly leave.

Even the most controversial parts of the river, such as the dams, have left impacts. Falcon Lake flooded the colonial-era Mexican city of Guerrero Viejo, and then receded from it, an eerie resurrection unique to the continent. At Los Ebanos, west of fast-growing McAllen-Reynosa, you can still cross the river on its last hand-drawn ferry, and get off, and have a beer and go back. Almost anywhere you can find a chalupero to row you across.

The rio is magnificent and brave and grand even in its disappearance as it runs through the salt cedar–choked basin west of Presidio and cuts through the Chisos Mountains. Amid the steep, surreal canyons of the Big Bend, known to generations of Texans, Mexicans and Indians, the river has cut a simple, stone aesthetic almost beyond words. I have rafted that river. Today, my raft would run aground.

"Better just to want rivers," Danny Deck said, after putting his face into the Rio Grande to cool it. Better, still, not to have forsaken them.

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