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A Threatened Great River

The mythical Rio Grande, which stretches nearly 1,900 miles from its headwaters in the snow-packed Rocky Mountains in Southern Colorado to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico is the ecological, cultural and economic lifeblood of the region. It has been the subject of great books, films, works of art and, with increasing frequency, many a battle over its limited water supplies.

Today this Great River is in dire straights, primarily because there are too many demands—agricultural, municipal and industrial—tapping its limited supplies. In addition to water diversions and ground water pumping, pollution, development and habitat destruction are threatening the Rio Grande and its bosque. As a result, many of the more than 400 species of fish and wildlife that depend on the river - including the Rio Grande silvery minnow - are in danger of extinction.

Securing Environmental Flows

WildEarth Guardians is in the midst of a nearly two decade-long campaign to protect and restore the Rio Grande and its largest tributary, the Pecos River. Our basic goal has been, and continues to be, to remedy the biggest fundamental flaw in state and federal water policy, which is that the Rio Grande does not have a right to its own water. In working to overcome this flaw and secure this right, the Rio Grande faces numerous threats and challenges.

Our Rio Grande work began in 1996 when agricultural interests diverted the river’s flow in central New Mexico, drying up the entire river and killing tens of thousands of endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows, while further imperiling the Southwestern willow flycatcher.  Since then we have engaged in various strategies to change water management and secure the river’s flows. Our efforts rely upon a delicate balance of strategic Endangered Species Act litigation, collaboration and public education to assure that the Rio Grande secures sufficient flows to sustain endangered fish and wildlife. Litigation that we initiated along with five other conservation organizations in November 1999 lasted more than a decade, resulting in numerous, sometimes, dramatic shifts in federal and state water policy and practices. A partial legal settlement with the City of Albuquerque in 2005 established the outline of a new framework for water management in the Rio Grande. We have also initiated litigation to challenge water transfers, floodplain development, water pollution and other activities that threaten the Rio Grande.

A New Water Management Paradigm

We believe that both municipal and agricultural water uses must be reformed and that some water must be re-allocated to the Rio Grande if it is to survive and thrive, especially in light of the growing threat of climate change in the Southwest.  Agriculture currently diverts up to 80% of the Rio Grande’s flow and much of that water continues to be used inefficiently to irrigate water intensive and low cash value crops.  

We support a new vision for irrigated agriculture throughout the Rio Grande watershed. Flood irrigation of alfalfa would not take place in the modern, environmentally sustainable water management regime that we envision and support. Crop and irrigation conveyances efficiencies that save water and result in re-allocating that water to the Rio Grande. We also actively support an agricultural water-leasing program in the Middle Rio Grande of New Mexico and have worked to establish a program that compensates farmers who agree not to divert water. That water would then be managed to benefit endangered fish and wildlife.

Likewise we support municipal water use policies that incentivize conservation and efficiency, with that saved water likewise being reallocated to the river. We have established two municipal “Living River” accounts—in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico—whose goal is to connect urban dwellers to the rivers that sustain them and inspire them to take action to fund restoration efforts. Ultimately we would like to see these Living River funds established in every community along the Rio Grande, from Colorado to Texas.

Endangered Species Advocacy

We believe the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow, listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1994, is an indicator of the river’s health and we have sought to protect the silvery minnow as a means of securing flows and protecting habitat for the literally hundred of species that depend on the Rio Grande and its bosques and wetlands. We have sought to require designation and expansion of critical habitat for the silvery minnow, not only in New Mexico where the species’ stronghold is, but also elsewhere along the 1,600 miles of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers where the species once existed. Likewise, we have initiated numerous legal initiatives to require federal agencies to reform water and river management practices to protect the silvery minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

Along the Pecos River we have sought for more than a decade to change federal and state dam management and agricultural practices to benefit the Pecos bluntnose shiner and the Pecos Gambusia. In 2006 we helped to secure federal protection for the endangered Pecos sunflower, which depends upon wetlands along the Pecos River and the Rio Grande. More recently we have helped secure protection for endangered spring snails that exist along the Pecos. Elsewhere along the river we have fought for recovery plans for of the Ocelot and Jaguarundi both of which use the river corridor to migrate. We are currently seeking protection for dozens of other species that depend upon the Rio Grande.

A Need for Federal Leadership

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, International Boundary and Water Commission manage water, dams, levees and the border with Mexico along the Rio Grande from just downstream of its headwaters in Colorado to near its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.  Though state agencies such as the Interstate Stream Commission and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District play major roles in the deciding the fate of the river we believe that federal leadership is necessary if we are to protect and restore this once and future Great River.

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