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Rio Grande joins most-endangered list

The great river is threatened by the diversion of too much water, an altered flood plain, dams and invasive plants

The Rio Grande joins the Ganges River on the World Wildlife Fund's list of the world's top 10 most endangered rivers, both of which are threatened by overuse.

The report, released this week, says the Rio Grande, known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico, is threatened by the diversion of too much water, an altered flood plain, dams and invasive plants. The Rio Grande, like some of the other rivers on the list, struggles to reach the ocean, according to the report.

Jennifer Montoya, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Chihuahua Desert Program based in Las Cruces, said even her organization was surprised to realize the Rio Grande, managed largely by the United States, faces the same kinds of threats as rivers such as the Ganges that are managed by developing countries.

million people in the United States and Mexico depend on it for drinking water, farming and their economies. By comparison, 200 million people in Nepal, India and Bangladesh depend on the Ganges.

"It shows that though we are a developed nation, we face the same challenges as a country like India in managing a river," Montoya said. "We're not being able to manage rivers sustainably."

She said the problem is historical. Dams like Elephant Butte and Leasburg were built decades before there were environmental-protection laws. Their purpose, under the century-old Rio Grande Project agreement with Mexico, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is to manage the water for farming, flood prevention and water deliveries.

The river's natural needs weren't considered.

"We're concerned the historic management of the river doesn't include the ecosystem," Montoya said. "There's no legal direction to manage for habitat within Texas or (Southern) New Mexico. It's just not been traditionally a part of the management."

On the southern 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, the river's health is threatened by the mowing of native and invasive species and livestock grazing, she said.

The World Wildlife Fund has been working with Elephant Butte farmers on conserving irrigation water and leasing some water to leave in the river. Montoya said the irrigators were interested in helping restore wetlands areas and wildlife habitat.

She said the organization is working with Gov. Bill Richardson to design a multiagency "living river" program to more efficiently work on restoring the entire Rio Grande's ecosystem.

Copyright 2007 The New Mexican - Reprinted with permission


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