The Pueblo Indians called it Posoge, the Big River, the Rio Grande. A hundred years ago it roared as it swept across the Land of Enchantment, crashing through canyons and flooding landscapes on its 1,890 miles flow to the sea. It has been diverted, drained and now it is dwindling, a mere whisper of what it was. Rising temperatures, over allocation, heat waves and an unprecedented 1,200-year drought across the West are posing additional threats to the river’s very existence. The mighty river and its ecosystem that includes five major reservoirs and hundreds of miles of canals is drying up.
Hotter and drier seasons, driven by climate shifts, have increased evaporation from the river’s reservoirs and are reducing the snow pack that feeds the Rio Grande. In the lower Rio Grande, residents don’t have to wonder what life would be like without the river. It runs dry almost every year.
There is a month or two during the summer when water has been released upstream for irrigation, or a local monsoon dumps a heavy load of rainwater that its gleaming waters are seen there.
Cottonwood populations and other native plants along the river have died back to allow invasive species like salt cedar into their habitat instead. Of the 27 native fish species originally found in the lower Rio Grande, only 14 remain.
“It’s all connected, right? It’s a web,” says Beth Bardwell, former director of conservation for Audubon New Mexico. “And here on the Rio Grande, we’ve basically begun to take out one web strand after another until it’s a really simplified system, and it can’t sustain a whole lot anymore.”
The Middle Rio Grande Water Conservancy District (MRGCD) has a 24/7 watch on the river’s water gauges that track its flow. If there is no flow then water is released into dry segments attempting to save as many endangered silvery minnows as possible.
According to Jason Casuga, CEO of MRGCD, if they do not perform a track-and-release of water for the Rio Grande, we could see 30 miles of the entire river go dry. “It’s stressful. We’ve been doing this controlled hopscotching for weeks now,” he said.
MRGCD has had responsibility for delivering irrigation waters to farmers since 1925. Under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas share the river’s flows before it reaches Mexico. The district took on the responsibility of helping the state meet its obligations to Texas to deliver that water. When the compact was established a century ago, Native Tribes were not signatories even though as sovereign nations they had lived on the river for thousands of years. At this point, New Mexico is behind on its obligations to the compact.
“This river is highly developed from a human standpoint,” Casuga said. “We as men impact the river so we have to unlock this man made infrastructure to help it.” New Mexico is pursuing the creation of new federal rules that will allow it to store more water and open its federal reservoirs again.
Flows of the river have dropped by 35% over the last 20 years. Under the terms of the compact, New Mexico cannot store any water in its reservoirs until Texas is repaid the 125,000 acre-feet of surface water from the river the state owes Texas.
Texas sued New Mexico in 2013, alleging that groundwater pumping in the south of New Mexico was harming its own share of water in the river. After a brief pause in the lawsuit to conduct mediation talks, an agreement has finally been reached. However, the Federal government officially must agree with the mediation results. Until the U.S. Supreme Court puts its stamp of approval on the undisclosed agreement, this agreement is not set in stone..
Colorado has recently started a $30 million land-fallowing program with its farmers to reduce its Rio Grande water use. Fallowing has been practiced for millennia among the 19 Pueblos and six Tribes in New Mexico that have lined the Rio Grande’s banks.
“The worry is heavy,” said Glenn Tenorio, a tribal member and water resources manager of the Santa Ana Pueblo on the Rio Grande.
The Santa Ana Pueblo’s water rights, as well as many other Tribes and Pueblos in New Mexico, have never been quantified. However, because the Tribes are Indigenous, they get their water first, based on how much is available. Tenorio is hopeful that improved use of New Mexico’s reservoirs and more efficient irrigation systems will support New Mexicans in adapting to the drier environment.
Tenorio’s family has lived in Santa Ana Pueblo for thousands of years. Over this time the Pueblos have learned to balance their needs with whatever the river provides. Their focus is on the future, seven generations ahead, to ensure their communities can grow in size while their irrigated lands continue to produce the corn, melons, grains, beans and alfalfa that sustain them.
“We only can do with what we’re given from Mother Nature,” Tenorio said. “We pray every day for our farmers and everyone who lives on the river.”
A new study warns we are in a dry period that could last for centuries and spread from Oregon and Montana through the Four Corners and into West Texas and northern Mexico. In the study, the researchers compared recent climate data with conditions during the historic megadroughts. By using 31 climate models researchers were able to show that the period from 2000 to 2018 was the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s and the second driest since 800 CE. Researchers believe this could be just the beginning of a more extreme trend toward megadrought as global warming continues.
As the fifth-longest river in the U.S., the Rio Grande provides water for 6 million people and irrigates 2 million acres of land. This problem did not sneak up on us: over one century of development has depleted the wild river. By the mid-1900s, only 20 percent of its flow reached the mouth. The border between Texas and Mexico is now dry for hundreds of miles.
Pueblos and Native Tribes Have Restoration Knowledge
The importance of transforming the leadership and decision-making structures that have kept Native Americans out of conversations about restorations cannot be overstated.
The change in the river’s landscape and the nourishment it once provided has suffered greatly due in large part to loss of Native control. Prior to the European migration into the Southwest, the river provided places to find medicine, hunt, collect water, find edibles and harvest trees for firewood and ceremonies. As we all search for solutions on how to deal with the loss of the surface water the Rio Grande has provided, Indigenous people, who have existed for thousands of years along its banks, have a multitude of knowledge to contribute.
In his paper, “The River of Life: Sustainable Practices of Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples”, Michael E Marchand explains how their knowledge can support solutions we need today. “Indigenous people rely on their history, culture and traditions. The goals are long term and not short term. The timeline is almost timeless. Decisions are concerned with both how their ancestors would view them and also how they impact future generations. They view everything as alive with a spirit. Everything is inter-connected. The earth is Mother and is alive. These foundational beliefs have allowed tribes to survive and to adapt to ever changing situations.”
The New Mexico State Engineer began adjudicating water rights on tributaries to the state’s major rivers over 30 years ago. However, as mentioned above, the water entitlements for most of the state’s 22 Indian Pueblos, Tribes and Nations have not been quantified. Forty years since legal cases on these water rights began, legislation has finally been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House to approve some Pueblo water settlements.
When Native American water rights are involved, the process that leads to a settlement of rights to water is exceedingly complex. Many of the Native water rights for the Rio Grande and its tributaries are tied up in court battles that have been going on for decades. Some are in Federal court and others are in New Mexico’s courts.
Rights to water on Indian grant lands and reservations in New Mexico fall within one of three different doctrines: Pueblo historic use water rights; Federal reserve water rights; and water rights established under the laws of the State of New Mexico.
A Six-Pueblo coalition along the Rio Grande recently started the legal process to quantify their water rights.. Pueblos and other Native Tribes have inherent sovereign authority over their water resources as granted by the U.S. Congress. This means the Pueblos hold the senior-most water rights on the Middle Rio Grande and they have the right to draw enough water to enable their own self-sufficiency from the rivers that flow through their reservations.
Among the key findings of a multi-year study by researchers at Yale University, Colorado State University and the University of Michigan, published in the journal Science, the increasing desertification of the Southwest is making life for the Navajo, Pueblos and other Tribal Nations increasingly difficult. Indigenous Nations have lost nearly 99% of their historical land base to the United States government during their land dispossession and forced migration. This diaspora left them more exposed to a wide variety of climate change risks. It is not just the quantity of the land but the quality of the land, including the water rights on that land, that is affecting Native Americans through longterm environmental and economic impacts.
“When we think about how to address climate change, we sometimes forget that past US policies and actions have led to conditions in which some groups are burdened more by climate change than others,” said Justin Farrell, a Yale professor and the study’s lead author.
“The reason why tribal nations are located in the places they are is because the U.S. tried to remove them and get them out of the way, so that the U.S. could build this massive industrial economy that we now know contributes to increased concentrations of increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere,” said Kyle Whyte, one of the study’s co-authors.
As a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Whyte encouraged the public to advocate for the importance of the federal government engaging in “nation-to-nation consultation with tribes.”