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The Rio Grande is a river in crisis. The third-longest river in the United States, this pulse of life stretches from its headwaters, nestled in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies, to the Gulf of Mexico. It has shaped the landscape ecologically, economically, and culturally. But centuries of mismanagement and living outside of the river’s means has left dwindling flows and the river dries more frequently and for longer stretches seemingly every year. This summer, WildEarth Guardians wanted to capture some of the ecological impacts of the drying of the Rio Grande. But we also wanted to capture the ways that humans connect with this artery of life and, perhaps more importantly, the loss experienced when those connections are severed.

To accomplish this we hired Javier Gallegos, a journalism student from New Mexico State University, and tasked him with traveling throughout the Upper Rio Grande Basin, from northern New Mexico through the state, to El Paso, Texas. Below Javier has compiled a photo essay with some of his favorite photos from his summer travels that help illustrate how much we have to lose by not protecting this vital waterway. Take a look at the photos below and then use your voice to stand up for a Living Rio. 

Chiflo Trail’s steep terrain and loose rock took about 45 minutes to hike and ended right by the river. It was the most secluded place along the Rio Grande we traveled to as the high walls and meandering river meant we saw no one else in the two hours we were down there. July 20, 2021.

The Big Arsenic Trail presented perhaps the highest visibility sight on the trip as we could see for miles in the direction of the river. Located within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the bubbling rapids below bounced off the canyon walls, amplifying the sound as we traversed down. July 20, 2021.

Clouds covered and diffused sunlight during our visit to the Rio Grande Gorge. There were well over a hundred people between the trails, the bridge, and the rest area. Locals and foreigners alike marveled at the beauty of the views. July 19, 2021.

Blue Dot Trial in White Rock was difficult to traverse during the July heat, but the views made it well worth it. A few other hikers crossed our path and told us of a waterfall nearby, which unfortunately alluded us. July 18, 2021.

A blue heron eats at Siphon/Trailhead Beach in Corrales. This is one of the places we visited multiple times. There were families and couples here even into the fall. The shore provides soft sand to lay out beach towels for swimming in the shallow waters of the river. August 12, 2021.

Our Rio Grande Campaigner’s dog Mardy, enjoys the view at Pueblo Montaño Park in Albuquerque after swimming in the river. She brings her to this park regularly as Mardy loves swimming and walking the easy trail where many other people and their pets alike spend their time. August 12, 2021.

The Rio Grande is clay-red near the man-made Tingley Beach in Albuquerque during mid summer. It was the only time I’ve seen a river this color before or since. July 17, 2021

The river access near the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque has a meandering path as the river’s low flow revealed wet patches of sand. We saw tracks of various birds and wildlife in the drying sand, highlighting the medley of life the river supports. June 15, 2021.

A young woman sits in the river while her friends prepare to fish at Riverside Park in Los Lunas. They said they all hang out at the park regularly because it has easy river access and gives them a place to fish and gather on a whim. June 14, 2021

A small, whiptail lizard found along the trail that borders the river in Socorro, New Mexico. Over half of the vertebrate species known to occur throughout New Mexico use aquatic or riparian habitats at some point in their life cycle. June 16, 2021

A train passed by moments after taking this picture at the San Marcial Railroad Bridge. Located on the Armendaris Ranch, the stretch of the Rio Grande this bridge crosses over frequently dries. June 16, 2021.

The San Acacia Diversion dam diverts water for irrigation in the middle Rio Grande valley. Unfortunately, this dam also serves as a barrier that prevents imperiled fish from migrating freely up river when flows recede. June 14, 2021.

A man sits reading right along the waterfront at Elephant Butte Reservoir while he waits for the bell to ring alerting of a caught fish. There were still hundreds of people recreating at the reservoir during the early fall despite the increasingly common low-temperature-days. September 18, 2021.

Las Cruces residents celebrate Independence Day with fireworks all along the riverbank at La Llorona Park. It’s a popular area throughout summer when water flows through the river again and families swim near-daily. Holidays are no exception. July 4, 2021

Vinton Bridge in Vinton, Texas, hosts many families looking to swim and gather during the summer. There were a few fathers and grandfathers fishing while their children were swimming downstream when I was there. July 2, 2021.

A mother waits for her daughter to join the rest of the family below the levee and onto the trail. Mary Frances Keisling Park in west El Paso is one the best places to see the Rio Grande in the city because of its paved sidewalks that hug the river for over a mile, in addition to its clear views of the Franklin Mountains. August 5, 2021.

The Playa Lateral Canal in the Rio Bosque Wetland Park in Socorro, Texas, is the closest you can get to the river as the border wall prevents access to it. The Rio Grande is directly on the other side of the wall. August 4, 2021.

TAKE ACTION! Tell your members of Congress to protect a living Rio Grande.

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Last month, Oregon’s Cougar dam and Foster dam began releasing water to help young Chinook salmon and steelhead on their downstream migration to the ocean. This month, Detroit dam is under court-order to make changes, too.

These are just a few of the many positive actions that are happening on the Willamette River thanks to Guardians and our allies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) operates 13 dams in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the dams are the primary reason why Chinook salmon and winter steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead of doing the required measures to protect fish, the Corps delayed, delayed, and delayed. Then we took action.

In 2018, WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, and Advocates for the West took the Corps to court. Two years later, the judge ruled in our favor condemning the Corps’ inaction on vital measures, which resulted in significant harm to Upper Willamette Chinook salmon and steelhead—in violation of the ESA.

This September, the Judge released a strongly worded order outlining a list of actions that require changing operations at multiple dams to prioritize fish passage and improve water quality. Several actions began almost immediately with more happening over the next few months.

Beginning this month, water will be released at Detroit dam through outlets (not turbines) at night to help young fish migrate downstream. Water will also be released from lower outlets to access cold water to improve temperatures down river. This is just one of the many actions required because of our lawsuit victory to ensure native fish and ecosystems thrive.

Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible, and your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.

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The City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County are proposing to construct and operate a pipeline that will significantly change how and where water flows in the lower Santa Fe River with the potential to harm downstream communities and the environment. This project is aimed at reusing water diverted through the San Juan-Chama Project by sending the return flows (2,200 acre-feet of water) that now flow down the lower Santa Fe River into the Rio Grande instead. An acre foot is the amount of water it would take to cover one acre with a foot of water.

The proposal triggers a federal environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because the San-Juan Chama Project is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation. The NEPA process requires Reclamation to evaluate potential impacts to the environment. There are two routes the NEPA process can take to evaluate impacts, an Environmental Assessment (EA), which is a brief discussion of the purpose and need for the proposed action, alternatives, environmental impacts, and a listing of agencies and persons to be consulted. If the action is deemed to significantly affect the environment, a more detailed and rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required. Currently, Reclamation is conducting its initial public outreach (or scoping process) to determine the issues and parameters of its review before the agency prepares an EA, a less robust review of potential impacts.

Reclamation has a responsibility to ensure that all adverse effects of the proposed project are adequately considered. The agency has begun a 30-day public scoping period to accept comments and questions from the community and other interested parties.

Please use the talking points below to help craft your comments. Comments must be submitted by 5pm on November 19 by email to SJCReturnFlowProject@empsi.com or by mail to Bureau of Reclamation, c/o EMPSi, 54 ½ Lincoln St., Santa Fe, NM 87501.

  • The project will significantly change the timing and amount of flows in the lower Santa Fe River. It is believed flows could be reduced by half. This fact alone warrants Reclamation take a deeper look into potential impacts by completing a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement.
  • The impacts of the proposed project to water quality on both the Rio Grande and the lower Santa Fe River must be evaluated is likely significant and requires analysis in an EIS.
  • The water the City and the County intends to reroute to the Rio Grande is vital to the lower Santa Fe River and plant, wildlife, and human communities all rely on this water.
  • The lower Santa Fe River is vital to native species like the Rio Grande sucker, an imperiled fish that Guardians has worked to see federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the Northern leopard frog. A full analysis of the effects to these species must be included in any EA and likely also warrants a full EIS be prepared.
  • The project area and impacted region is within the range of federally protected species like the yellow-billed cuckoo and Southwestern willow flycatcher. Reclamation must consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the proposal will not harm listed species or their designated critical habitat.
  • Hydrogeological assessments must be conducted as part of an EIS to learn more about the surface-groundwater interactions in the project area and ensure depriving the lower Santa Fe River of this surface water will not jeopardize aquifer levels.
  • In 2012, the City of Santa Fe passed a Living River Ordinance with the intent of mimicking natural hydrologic cycles in the Santa Fe River and ensuring minimum target flows in the river. Reclamation must honor this local ordinance and evaluate the impacts this proposal will have on maintaining the outlined target flows.
  • Reclamation, as a federal agency with a trust obligation to tribes and pueblos along the Rio Grande and Santa Fe River, has a duty to meaningfully consult with all impacted tribal and pueblo communities, including at a minimum the six middle Rio Grande pueblos. This government-to-government consultation is separate from and in addition to the environmental review process under NEPA. To our knowledge, this has yet to happen.
  • Climate change is significantly reducing flows in the Rio Grande Basin, including in the Santa Fe River Watershed. The cumulative impacts of how climate change will impact this river in combination with the effects of this project must be detailed and considered in an EIS.

The public scoping period is meant to gather known issues or concerns with the project or its potential effects but also to identify questions that must be answered as part of the environmental review process. Including any questions you may have about the project itself, the permitting process (including permitting through the Office of the State Engineer), existing data (e.g., hydrologic modeling or flow data), or the affected area is a helpful way to participate in the process.

Please be sure to submit your comments by 5pm on November 19 by email to SJCReturnFlowProject@empsi.com or by mail to Bureau of Reclamation, c/o EMPSi, 54 ½ Lincoln St., Santa Fe, NM 87501. If you have questions or would like additional tips on how to structure your comments, please contact me at tsnyder@wildearthguardians.org or 505-396-1752.

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