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The Rio Grande: Tackling the Mosaic Puzzle of a Fragile Ecosystem

In her new study about the Rio Grande, researcher Luzma Nava concludes that a simple change to a treaty could improve the border river’s imperiled environment. But political will may be lacking.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
On June 19, 2013, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Tristan Austring, left, and Angela James search for endangered Rio Grande silvery minnows in isolated pools in the riverbed near Socorro, N.M. Fish numbers had dropped to the lowest level in more than 20 years and there are few signs of them reproducing in the wild, largely because there is insufficient water reserved for wildlife.Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

If there’s ever been a river at the mercy of international politics, it would have to be the Rio Grande.

The river begins in southern Colorado, flows the length of New Mexico, then forms the entirety of the border between Texas and Mexico. As such, the Rio Grande (known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico) is not only the subject of water battles but also disputes involving public access, legitimate international trade, illegal drug trafficking and, of course, illegal immigration.

Adding to these concerns is the recent vow by Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States, to build a “wall” along the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico. Whether he follows through or not, the threat is only increasing the pressures on the river.

Several treaties govern the flow of water in the Rio Grande, as well as trade and travel across the international border. Because of intense water development and diversion, parts of the river are completely dry and fishless for hundreds of miles during much of the year. The treaties ensure that everyone who is entitled to water gets their share, on both sides of the border.

Forgotten in all this is what’s best for the river itself – its wildlife and its habitats – and for the people who simply want to enjoy a wet river. Luzma Nava recently explored this problem in a study published in the journal, Water. The study was completed while Nava was a postdoctoral fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an independent think-tank based outside Vienna, Austria.

Nava, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, in 2015 completed a doctoral degree in international studies at Laval University in Quebec. For the Rio Grande study, Nava conducted more than 70 interviews with people involved in Rio Grande water management, on both sides of the border, and concluded that it is possible to amend the Rio Grande treaties to free up water for environmental purposes. Nava spoke recently with Water Deeply about her work.

Water Deeply: What is it that interests you about the Rio Grande?

Luzma Nava: The Rio Grande for me is a great river. As some of the participants in my field study said, it’s a magical river, because it starts in the mountains in the state of Colorado, and then goes down through New Mexico, then through forest and agricultural land. Along all these it goes through very different ecosystems: the mountains, then the forest, arid lands in southern New Mexico, then more tropical and warmer ecosystems down in Texas and Mexico.

Also, a lot of different communities benefit from the river. We mainly have, in the state of New Mexico, the pueblos. They have settled on the riverside. Then we have some colonias in the state of Texas. We have so many small systems that rely on the river.

Just to differentiate between the Rio Grande and the Colorado River, the Rio Grande runs along the border and the Colorado crosses the border. The fact that the Rio Grande runs along the border makes a difference in the border issues that have to be managed.

Water Deeply: What is the condition of the river today?

Nava: If I have to answer in one word, I would say fragile. The main issue is the lack of water. Also the water quality is in danger. And when water quality of the river is not good enough, then we have ecological issues as a consequence.

The fact we don’t have enough water translates into other issues that depend on the quantity of water. There is a loss of habitat, water quality degradation, pollution, salinization, sedimentation. The community of fish is very, very low. In terms of water quality, the more fish we find in the river, the better the quality of the water. But in the case of the Rio Grande, it doesn’t work like that because there are no fish in the river. They have disappeared because there is not enough water.

Water Deeply: How did the river get into this very troubled condition?

Nava: This notion of the whole basin as a unit, it doesn’t exist in the field. In this area the whole notion of a watershed is not applied as we learn it in school. The whole river and the whole basin is not managed as a unit. The whole river basin, from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, is managed as a puzzle. It’s a river basin that is a puzzle, and every piece is managed in a different way from the piece upstream and the piece downstream. And this makes it a mosaic of different management approaches.

Water Deeply: You found in your paper ‘no binational measures to sustain instream flows for environmental purposes.’ How can this be when the river has been managed under treaties for more than a century?

A cotton field irrigated by water from the Rio Grande, in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. A variety of very thirsty crops, including cotton and alfalfa, are grown using Rio Grande water. (Luzma Jimenez Nava)

A cotton field irrigated by water from the Rio Grande, in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico. A variety of very thirsty crops, including cotton and alfalfa, are grown using Rio Grande water. (Luzma Jimenez Nava)

Nava: It’s mainly because having water in the river outside the irrigation period is considered not useful. This is what I gathered from the field. If there is water in the river, it’s because it has to be allocated to someone. The Rio Grande is a fully allocated river. In this case, having water in the river for the fish or the habitat is not perceived as an activity having an economic impact. So instead, they prefer to take off all the water in the river and put it into farming or the city or industrial purposes.

But the 1944 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico, it provides measures to put into place environmental purposes. The issue with that is, I think, there is not a strong social, economic and political will to use the “minute” process as a way to get water for the river.

Water Deeply: Tell me about the minute process. Why is that important?

Nava: The 1944 treaty meant that whenever the U.S. and Mexico find an issue to solve, and it’s not covered within the framework of the treaty, then they can use the minute process as a sort of amendment to the treaty. The minute process provides a way to solve emerging issues and adapt the treaty to current circumstances.

Water Deeply: Is there a desire to work together to solve ecosystem issues?

Nava: I think there is a desire to work together on environmental and ecosystem issues on the river. But there are a lot of interests who have to come together. This is a very interesting situation, because all the interests want to win. This is the challenge: to have an ideal win-win situation for the stakeholders and the river. Because the river has to be a stakeholder. From my point of view, that is the most important issue.

Water Deeply: What is that mechanism?

Nava: This is from some of the respondents in my field surveys. Some of them suggest, and I think it’s quite interesting, the notion of temporary water transfers between users.

The issue will be to set up a mechanism — a kind of dynamic water transfer process – that would require a minute change process. But mostly it would involve irrigation districts, because they hold most of the water. So in this case, the irrigation districts can be a sort of water bank so they can hold the water for all the users. But it’s mostly a new regulation being set up in the irrigation districts that would be required.

Water Deeply: These treaties are all quite old now. What challenges do they face in the 21st century? Is this kind of ‘minute change’ process possible today?

Nava: Something that has been there between the United States and Mexico is the fact that in this river section, from Juarez to the Gulf of Mexico, the river becomes the border.

The border translates into other problems: drug trafficking, immigration, pollution. We have all these issues that are challenging security for both nations – mostly, I would say, for the U.S. With segments of the fence that have been built on the Rio Grande to stop illegal immigration, the issue is that the fence has been built along the riverbed, which also has consequences on the environmental side.

Our perception is that it’s a border that we need to protect, because there are some other issues that are more important than the natural ecosystem. The water-related issues kind of disappear when it comes to drug trafficking, immigration, pollution and all those issues that cross the border and hinder national security.

So this is unfortunate for the river.

Water Deeply: You write in your study that forming a new task force on the Rio Grande might help. How so?

Nava: I think it could because a water task force would allow us to bring together all those voices and different perceptions to try to find a way to deal with this new reality and these issues that are lasting for several years and [where] we can’t find a solution.

One thing about this water task force is the need to be inclusive. I mean to integrate different perspective, different disciplines. We need more than engineers; we need social scientists, we need people from the natural sciences, we also need the citizens, the local people who think they will never have a say. And, of course, we need farmers, because they are the most important [water] users in the region.

Water Deeply: You conducted 77 interviews throughout the region as part of your research. Do these people recognize the need for environmental improvements in the Rio Grande?

Nava: Yes. There is a growing recognition of the need for environmental restoration. There’s a growing urgency.

One woman told me: We are not going to be able to restore the whole river or the whole basin as a unit. But we might be able to restore the river if we follow an island approach. This is related to what I said before. This island approach, from her perspective, refers to the fact that the whole river is so different that it requires very specific approaches to solve an issue.

So we cannot put in practice the same restoration program to solve an issue in the upper section of the river – let’s say, in Colorado – that approach cannot be put in practice downstream in Texas, for instance. So we have to study the river piece by piece, and then propose solutions to every piece.

Correction: The story corrects an earlier version which said that Luzma Nava was working on completing her doctoral degree. It was completed in 2015.

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