Drone photo by Amy Erickson/RGALT
Article by Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust, originally published in their Summer 2023 newsletter
Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust (RGALT) protects agricultural lands, but what many people don’t know is that many of our conservation easements (CEs) protect privately owned Rio Grande riparian habitat at the same time. The Middle Rio Grande (MRG) landscape, RGALT’s main focus area, encompasses the highest concentration of private lands on NM’s Rio Grande floodplain, including 60,000 irrigated acres of farmland and over 20,000 acres of undeveloped riparian habitat stewarded by private landowners.
The riparian habitat, the river, and the farmland all provide critical wildlife corridors. These privately owned riparian lands provide habitat for several endangered and threatened species, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the southwestern willow flycatcher, yellow-billed cuckoo, and the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. The MRG is vital for migratory birds, providing a bottle-neck corridor essential for bird migration in the Central Flyway of North America. The wetlands within this valley, both natural and working wetlands (flood-irrigated agriculture), provide critical stopover habitat and wintering grounds for over 400 species of migratory birds.
This year with Rio Grande spring flows amping up to 5000 cubic feet per second, many of RGALT’s conservation easements experienced over bank flows, putting our annual monitoring on hold, but providing the opportunity to observe and photograph our riparian wetland easements actively flooded. RGALT holds 16 conservation easements protecting riparian/wetland habitat in Socorro County where there is no county zoning. The CE projects were funded through the USFWS- North American Wetlands Standard grant. The CEs protect the riparian habitat and prevent the floodplain from being developed, thereby allowing the Rio Grande to over flow into the natural habitat on the Rio Grande’s eastern floodplain. The over bank flows help maintain the natural riparian habitat and also distribute the river sediment to a broader area here in Socorro County, where the channeling of the Rio Grande has caused sediment to build to the point that the Rio Grande sits over 10 feet higher than the City of Socorro.
The MRG landscape is threatened due to increasing urbanization, loss of agricultural water rights to municipal and industrial uses and years of extreme drought. The remaining natural habitat is fragmented and degraded (over 90% decline) because of development, habitat conversion, invasive species, wildfire, and hydrologic alterations. In addition, predictions for climate change make efforts to preserve and restore the agricultural land for the local foodshed and the remaining natural habitat critical for sustaining people and wildlife. Private land protection and restoration are of utmost importance for critical habitat and linkages between the five wildlife refuges scattered through the MRG corridor, for a resilient local foodshed, and for preserving the cultural heritage of the communities throughout the MRG.