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Article by Gina Dello Russo, riparian ecologist and local advocate for the Rio Grande

I was asked to speak at the Friends of Bosque del Apache Annual Meeting and enjoyed the opportunity to speak about water, one of the complex topics for our state. There are many aspects of water that I cannot speak to, but I have lived my life along the Rio Grande and worked with others for many years to understand and improve our river through central New Mexico. It has been a rewarding and challenging effort, both in the advocacy arena and with on-the-ground project implementation. I chose to focus my presentation to the Friends audience on the opportunities and need for engagement related to water issues. A summary of that presentation with the details presented is included here.

Like the reflection of moving water through filtered light, if you can picture that, there are many facets to water. Water as natural processes – the hydrologic cycle and the river ecosystem, water as a service to humans and other living things, water as a threatened natural resource, water as a driver of change, and finally, water as a catalyst to greater understanding and engagement are among them.

One facet of water in New Mexico is the natural process of spring snowmelt runoff from the mountains of Colorado and northern New Mexico that are usually sustained for weeks or months, depending on snowpack. On the other hand, summer seasonal rain events are usually scattered across our landscapes and result in flashy flows which can reach high discharges but recede quickly.  When the river runs high, flood water can scour sediment from river bars and islands and deposit those suspended sediments on the floodplain or move it downstream to deposit there. That water and sediment forms the seed bed for the many diverse plant species that provide wildlife habitats along the river. The germination of native plants, their survival and growth are dependent on water, both surface water and shallow groundwater. Floodplain vegetation establishes in patches based on seed sources, water supplies, and elevation above the river. This “patch mosaic” consists of different species, varied plant density, and over time different age classes, usually in a patchwork of wet and dry sites (Middle Rio Grande Conservation Action Plan 2019, update coming in 2024).

Water as a service for living species, certainly humans, is a multi-faceted topic on its own. For me, clean water is an intrinsic right for all living things. To engage a diverse human community and reach people from different perspectives, many highlight the services water provides to humans alone (described in Environmental Flows, Angela H. Arthington 2012). Rivers and lakes hold less than 0.006 – 0.01% of all water on Earth and with wetlands and aquifers store freshwater or slow the passage of this water, mitigate floods and support food webs. Rivers and lakes support human development, agriculture, and all biological diversity. Rivers and lakes are significant from both a cultural and religious perspective for many of us. River degradation and the loss of freshwater biodiversity have major implications for human water security, human water prosperity, human health, and human well-being. And beyond humans, all species are impacted!

Photo by Gina Dello Russo

We are and will be facing these implications in the future along the Rio Grande. Water scarcity is now common for the agricultural community and Bosque del Apache NWR. Water quality issues can increase as water quantity is limited in human systems. And our well-being can be threatened as well. We have seen catastrophic fires along the river, certainly on the refuge or very nearby. River drying is becoming a yearly occurrence in the Isleta and San Acacia reaches of the Middle Rio Grande (Bosque del Apache NWR is located at the southern end of the San Acacia Reach) and has certainly been a management action for years on the Lower Rio Grande in NM. This impacts the recharge of aquifers that some communities rely on for drinking water and farmers and the refuge rely on during drought. And flooding, part of the natural processes and beneficial to the ecosystem, now is a threat to communities because of restricted floodplains and sediment accumulation. An excellent resource for interested advocates is Reining in the Rio Grande: People, Land and Water by Dr. Fred Phillips, G. Emlen Hall, and Mary E. Black as well as Dr. Phillips’ presentation, “The Rio Grande: Is the Past the Key to the Future?”

And then there is our changing climate. Humans are very good at measuring things. Humans are also very good at observing and predicting certain aspects of our world’s weather. Couple this knowledge with the science behind predictions and you have some general statements that hold true. The earth is warming and CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing. A warmer atmosphere is expected to accelerate the global hydrologic cycle and result in higher evaporation, precipitation rates, and evapotranspiration rates, and change river flow patterns. Rivers and groundwater systems will feel the most pressure as the main sources of water for people. For our area, the predictions for the future include mean daily temperatures higher throughout the growing season and the rest of the year. This will impact snowpack runoff, soil water retention, plant survival and growth, and overall water availability. Overall average precipitation per year may be unchanged but how and when the water appears will be altered from historic conditions. There are predictions of 25% less water overall for human and environmental uses. Other predictions include snowpack runoff earlier in the season and reduced average yearly river flows overall with more water coming in the form of rain than snow and arriving at different locations on the landscape (NM Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, Bulletin 164 (2022) and Llewellyn et al. (2013)). More sporadic and intense rain events through the monsoon period are predicted, with those not as easily captured as snowpack runoff in existing reservoirs.

Water is a driver of change. From the natural processes like flooding, freeze and thaw, and rainfall, water has sculpted our landscapes. Water has determined where humans moved and settled on these landscapes. Water has allowed humans to flourish by aiding the deposition and development of soils on floodplains and across prairies – our farmlands. We have dammed and diverted it to meet our needs. And now, here we are at another turning point with many water issues to address.

There are several major issues on the Rio Grande in central New Mexico including our obligations by law as a state to deliver water downstream to other water users. On the Rio Grande, New Mexico has moved in and out of debt to Texas over the years, and when in debt, some upstream reservoirs are restricted from using stored, available water. Currently, New Mexico is in debt to Texas for 121,500-acre feet of water. That’s the final 2023 debit accounting number agreed to by the Rio Grande Compact Commission recently.

There are also laws in place to provide water to licensed water users in the state of New Mexico, including Bosque del Apache NWR. Water delivery to licensed water users in the Middle Rio Grande has been and will likely be managed under a “shared shortages” process. Please check out a presentation by State Engineer Mike Hammon and Nat Chakeres of the State Engineer’s Office at https://mrgwateradvocates.org/prior-workshops/#September-21-2023.

Another major issue is the exchange of water between surface water and shallow groundwater. In the San Acacia Reach of the river, river water seeps to an adjacent large channel/drain, the Low Flow Conveyance Channel (LFCC). But during the hottest time of the year when the river dries, seepage to the LFCC changes and the water delivered to the refuge down this channel/drain changes as well. River drying also impacts aquatic and terrestrial habitats along the river and the surrounding shallow groundwater levels. As surface water sources diminish, it is common for groundwater pumping to increase. The refuge, area farmers, and rural landowners without access to community water systems will likely see impacts to their supplies because of an increased demand on groundwater in the future, as seen during drought in other river systems. This is an issue that calls for balance among uses, a great cause for better understanding and engagement.

The final major issue I presented is water for wildlife and wildlife habitats. Wildlife and wildlife habitats along the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico and the entire river are dependent on water. Throughout the year, birds, mammals, invertebrates, and fish live in this wetter zone in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert. The historic shallow groundwater supports native plants throughout the hotter and drier summer. And the allocation of water for these uses remains tenuous.

Photo by Christi Bode

The biodiversity present here has evolved with the river’s dynamic water supply. The important ecological linkages of this system are somewhat understood, with continuing physical and biological sciences research attempting to address unanswered or poorly understood components of a very complex system. This work must continue to bring better understanding and hopefully lead to innovative decisions and management actions. This is a great opportunity for advocacy and engagement with universities, agencies and others interested in learning more about our river – I have found that better decisions come out of us learning together.

Water certainly is a catalyst for shared greater understanding and engagement. Some opportunities to learn and provide comments from our different perspectives are coming up. Regional water planning, led by the Interstate Stream Commission, is a state-wide opportunity to reimagine water planning in the State, a once in a generation opportunity, for us all to collectively decide how we value water (interview with ISC staff, May 2024)! Join others from our community on July 22, 2024, on NM Tech Campus, but also online, and throughout the longer process. Please visit the website (https://mainstreamnm.org/get-involved/) and keep track of the process. The Friends of Bosque del Apache Advocacy Committee can assist with connecting you to avenues to provide input for this and other opportunities. Another great resource is the Water Advocates for the Rio Grande and New Mexico at www.mrgwateradvocates.org.

There will be opportunities to comment on three US Bureau of Reclamation-led efforts on the Middle Rio Grande including the Rio Grande New Mexico Basin Study, the Channel Realignment Project on Bosque del Apache NWR, and the Lower San Acacia Reach Improvements environmental impact statement (https://www.virtualpublicmeeting.com/mrg-lsari-eis). The second two include designs to improve water delivery efficiency while providing wetland, riparian forest, and meadow restoration on both private and public lands.

And finally, there is an evolving state agency-led water management plan to reoperate the LFCC during monsoon season by diverting river water at San Acacia Diversion Dam. This plan will require monitoring, research, and modeling to determine what water management scenarios will mean to water availability and delivery to the many water uses. NM Tech and the state Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources are currently assisting state agencies in gathering data. It will be important that research and monitoring of key biological aspects of the system under current and future management actions are included in this effort. As an example, research and monitoring of any possible water stress thresholds for native plants that may be triggered by management scenarios will be important to pursue. Calling for comprehensive research prior to water management actions is a way to advocate for better understanding of the river system through changes.

The examples above are organized efforts that will presumably encourage and allow limited participation, but I would suggest and encourage a greater effort to advocate for the intrinsic value of water for the Rio Grande.

The national Clean Water Act, fifty years old this year, has been recently altered so that 95% of our state’s waterways now fall outside of EPA protections. Our state’s rivers are now considered the most endangered in the nation (American Rivers & TriCity Record, April 26, 2024). The NM Environment Department, Surface Water Bureau is working to seek primacy over the EPA and develop a surface water permitting process that allows protection of our state’s streams and wetlands, intermittent and perennial. This is an opportunity for advocacy and engagement so contact them for more information and support their efforts.

Speaking of efforts, a recent study of worldwide efforts at preserving wildlife says conservation actions are showing measurable achievements in slowing biodiversity declines and/or improving biodiversity (Langhammer et al. 2024). In this study, efforts at controlling invasive species, reducing habitat loss, restoring wildlife habitats, establishing protected areas, and managing ecosystems in sustainable ways showed the greatest positive impact for effect size. And that is exactly what many of us have been doing in the Middle Rio Grande for the past fourty years or so. There are many good efforts underway on the refuge, in the Middle Rio Grande, and along the entire river.

We work as a community of professionals, working to understand and protect the Rio Grande. It is a diverse group of individuals who have dedicated their time and expertise to finding solutions, to moving in positive directions. And currently the Friends of Bosque del Apache continue their work to inform themselves and participate in different ongoing initiatives as a part of that greater effort beyond the refuge. That is very encouraging to me.

While we are addressing change and engaging with others, it is important to remember that the present active floodplain is a scaled down version of the historic Rio Grande. If we allow the river to function to some extent as it did historically, we lessen the manipulation and maintenance required to improve present conditions. If we work with the cyclic wet and dry years, both of precipitation and flow patterns on the river, we can move towards a sustainable riparian ecosystem, different from the historic Rio Grande, different from our present Rio Grande, but hopefully a river that sustains humans and all species that have come to depend upon it for life.

Photo by Cecilia Rosacker

My approach has been to speak from what brings me joy, hopefully listen with respect to others, and speak of a better future that is designed and built through working together. By remembering and celebrating that we are not the only things living and surviving in this world, we can plan and act for their future too. I’ve observed that our “labels” or jobs sometimes get in the way of insightful and promising solution-building! We can all come to the table as a part of a greater whole. If you get the chance to ask questions, do. It is an exciting time for all to be engaged in discussions on our shared water future. Learning and acting together, we can ensure that the natural environment along the Rio Grande, including the jewels of the national and state refuges, are protected and have the capacity to thrive in the future.

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