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Fighting for the Rio Grande

Rio Grande by Adriel Heiseyphoto credit: Adriel Heisey

Each August, after we harvested the cherries from the trees in our yard in Albuquerque, my parents would pack up the car and head north to Colorado. The heat from the Rio Grande valley disappeared as we entered the cool crisp mountain air. I knew we had arrived when I could hear the river pulsing in my ears.

From an early age, I would listen to that pulse of the water along with the sounds of the birds and the wind and feel a sense of freedom—wildness. From where I sat along its banks, I truly believed that the water before me would flow untamed and uninhibited to the sea.

I learned quickly that this was my illusion. An illusion created out of my personal ritual of the time I spent each year in the headwaters of the Rio Grande. The other 98 percent of the year I played in dry mesas and arroyos of the arid southwest where no audible pulse existed in the river.

In central New Mexico, where I grew up, not only was the Rio Grande withering under the pressure of growing cities and thirsty agriculture, but also declining species sounded the alarm that the current management paradigm was not sustainable.

In 1994, the year I graduated from high school, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rio Grande silvery minnow as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The silvery minnow existed historically as one of the most abundant and widespread species in the Rio Grande, occupying the river from Espanola, New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico.

The listing of the minnow alone, however, would not protect it from the straws that sought to suck the river dry. In April of 1996, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District diverted the entire flow of the Rio Grande into its canals and ditches just north of Socorro, leaving more than 10,000 endangered minnows stranded in the dry riverbed with no escape. The District killed nearly half of the entire remaining population of silvery minnows in one day.

This injustice was enough to inspire a scrappy forest protection group—WildEarth Guardians—to become a leading voice in the fight to chart a new course for an endangered river. Even in the face of great opposition and an extremely challenging landscape both institutionally and politically, Guardians, along with several other conservation groups, began what turned out to be a decade of litigation to restore and protect the Rio Grande and the species that depend upon it for their survival.

As a law student in Eugene, Guardians advocacy on behalf of the Rio Grande inspired me to consider a different context for Endangered Species Act litigation that reflected the familiar setting of my home in New Mexico. I am now applying my skills and passion to advance the torch that Guardians sparked two decades ago into the next 25 years.

Our vision includes a living Rio Grande that has a permanent right to its own water. We will push ahead in challenging the institution of traditional western water law and advocate for bold changes that are needed in the face of increased demand and climate change. Our strategy incorporates both litigation and implementing solutions like the establishment of a water acquisition program to reallocate water from agricultural to environmental purposes.

We will also seek to restore dynamism to the Rio Grande by advocating for the reauthorization of the existing reservoirs in northern New Mexico to allow for the storage and release of water to benefit a living river environment.

The sounds and vibrations that come from a river still resonate with me today. I continue to follow the ritual my parents and grandparents bestowed upon me and return to the headwaters of the Rio Grande several times a year just to listen. I take my own daughters now and we listen together.

For the river,

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Jen Pelz staff 2013

Jen Pelz
Wild Rivers Program Director
WildEarth Guardians

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