As we walked into the damp riverside forest-—wet from the rain the evening prior—last summer, the two sets of sisters immediately found common ground among the giant snails, pill bugs, and hummingbirds we encountered on our journey. Although the girls (my daughters and the daughters of a fellow river guardian) entered the Rio Grande Bosque in Albuquerque as strangers, an instant bond formed that day by their collective love of the river and the magic it sparked between them.
Just as the Rio Grande provided common ground among these young girls from different states, it has, for millennia, also created bridges between communities and cultures. Nearly 2,000 miles long, the river flows through the lives of 10 million people from two countries. It is a vital artery of life from its headwaters to the sea.
My daughters’ journey has many similarities to the recent experience I had traveling to the lower reaches of the Rio Grande to float Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park. The trip involved 20 relative strangers from all walks of life, and despite this, we found community on this Great River. In addition to the relationships formed and the beauty we took in, the adventure extended my love for the river beyond my backyard and inspired an evolution of perspective in me.
I admit that I personally had all but abandoned the 1,250 miles of the Rio Grande from Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico. It is difficult to work on more than 600 miles of the river, let alone the entire 1,896 miles. It seemed necessary for self-preservation. The reality of the problems the Rio Grande faces from source to sea is vast:
- Climate change is predicted to reduce flows in the Rio Grande by 25 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in New Mexico, and over 50 percent in Texas and Mexico in the remainder of this century;
- A border wall (or series of walls) could destroy connections between countries as well as migratory corridors for rare and beautiful ocelots and jaguars, among other species;
- A 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande known as “the forgotten reach”, between El Paso and Presido, Texas (or Ojinaga, Mexico), is already channelized and bone-dry year round;
- Flows in the 75-mile stretch of one of America’s first Wild & Scenic Rivers—the Rio Grande from the Colorado-New Mexico state line to south of Taos, NM—is in danger of disappearing due to unsustainable use in Colorado and implementation of the Rio Grande Compact, especially during dry years; and
- The lack of flooding and peak flows, as well as the lack of accountability of agricultural water use from the Rio Grande in central New Mexico, threatens to increase ecological damage to one of the largest contiguous cottonwood forests in the world.
There is no doubt the solutions to these problems are complicated and hard, but we can chart a new course for this iconic river.
After four lovely days on the Rio Grande, when my canoe finally reached the shore (just below the La Linda International Bridge between the United States and Mexico), I brought with me a new view of the river I have known and loved for my entire life and a path forward for my activism for the future.
I knew at that moment I could no longer remain in a silo. My day-in, day-out fight for five years to protect and restore flows in the Rio Grande, from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to its near death in the confines of Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico, was not the end of the story. This nearly 650 miles of river was merely the beginning of the iconic Rio Grande. We must change the narrative and begin building bridges between communities, not exploiting divisions.
Today is the International Day of Action for Rivers and serves to encourage people from around the world “to lift their voices to demonstrate, educate and celebrate the world’s rivers and those who struggle to protect them.” The Rio Grande is one of the world’s most iconic and endangered international rivers, and to protect the river as a whole, we must join together as neighbors in a basin-wide community.
We cannot do this by remaining in silos and maximizing the use of the river to benefit a few at the expense of others. We must find ways to build connections that will help restore this once-mighty river. Our vision is to build a River Guardian Network exclusively along the Rio Grande and its tributaries that will serve to defend, protect, and keep the river healthy and safe for this and future generations. Please contact me to learn more or to join forces with us.
Rivers are a source of kinship and serve to bridge communities both locally and regionally. We may love different sections of this icon, but we are all creatures of the desert southwest. If we connect ourselves, we create hope to reconnect and restore the imperiled Rio Grande we all love.