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Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

Rio Grande River flows – how water law, dams, climate change, and more are causing the Rio’s flows to diminish

Biggest Threats to the Rio

Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

Water Law

Few buffers exist in the law to protect river flows, river ecosystems, or native species

Western water law is based on diversion and “maximum beneficial use” of the water from our rivers. That “beneficial use” extends only to humans; the law includes no protections for river ecosystems or native species. The Rio Grande Compact of 1938 permanently assigned the states surrounding the river their respective rights to the Rio’s water, but the compact’s authors made a massive miscalculation when it came to how much water could be allocated while still maintaining the river’s health. Even in 1938, the Rio could never live up to the demands specified by the compact. In the 80 years since, populations in states surrounding the Rio have more than quadrupled.

caballo reservoir dam adriel heisey wildearth guardians

Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

Dams & Infrastructure

Human communities are failing to live within the river’s means

Since legal demands for water in the Rio Grande Basin always exceeded supply, Congress kicked off the dam building era to stretch depleted water supplies further, beginning in 1916 with the construction of Elephant Butte Reservoir in southern New Mexico. From 1916 to 1975, 20 additional dams were constructed in the Basin. Congress also authorized and heavily invested in flood control infrastructure (including jetty jacks, dams, drains, and levees), further inhibiting the Rio.

rio grande runoff adriel heisey wildearth guardians

Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

Lack of Seasonal Pulse

Dams, levees, and other infrastructure destroy the river’s pulse and inhibit its vital ecological functions

With dams and flood control infrastructure in place, the Rio’s historical snowmelt-driven spring flood flows have ended, and so has its dynamism. Jetty jacks and riverside levees have reduced the river to an artificially narrow channel and prevented sediment from being distributed throughout its once-vast floodplain. We have killed the Rio’s natural pulse, and a growing list of endangered species indicates that water management in the Basin is not supporting a living river.

rio grande algae bloom adriel heisey wildearth guardians

Photo Credit: Adriel Heisey

Pollution + Lack of Enforcement

Diminished water quality is not being addressed, nor pollution sources contained

Water quality in the Basin is frequently overlooked; often, it’s the entities with the fewest resources who are setting and enforcing more stringent water quality standards.

mud cracks big bend national park vanherdehaage wildearth guardians

Photo Credit: vanherdehaage

Climate Change

Climate change is predicted to reduce flows in the Rio Grande by 25 to 50 percent by the end of the century

Climate change is already increasing temperatures in the Rio Grande Basin, and precipitation is expected to gradually decrease by the end of the century. The result: flows in the Rio Grande are predicted to decrease by one-third. Already-excessive evaporation will intensify, as will demands in agricultural and municipal water use.

Protect Rio Grande Flows for Future Generations

Send a message to Senator Udall thanking him for his support protecting flows in the Rio Grande and ask him to help secure funding for a study of necessary flows to ensure a truly Wild and Scenic Rio Grande Gorge.

SPEAK OUT

Recent Stories From Rivers

rio grande los lunas jen pelz wildearth guardians

The Rio Grande is dying and only a new compact will save her

July 10, 2018

This piece was published in the Denver Post on July 6, 2018

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“The river calling me…”

May 22, 2018

Surrendering to the flow of the Colorado River and the majesty of the Grand Canyon

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condit dam wikimedia commons wildearth guardians
Dammed if you don’t
Feb 21, 2018
rio grande adriel heisey WildEarth Guardians

Why the Rio Grande’s flows matter

January 1, 2018

The Rio Grande, America’s Great River, is running out of water. That’s a major cause for concern for a number of reasons.

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We Are All Neighbors Along the Rio Grande

To protect the river as a whole, we must join together in a basin-wide community.

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Photo Credit: Jen Pelz

Rivers Press

New Mexico’s Rivers Safe from Ill-Conceived Pumping Scheme

Aug 3, 2018

Yesterday, the New Mexico State Engineer dismissed a second attempt by Augustin Plains Ranch to push through a speculative scheme for mining groundwater in central New Mexico. In 2016, WildEarth Guardians, farmers, ranchers, and local communities prote

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All Rivers Press Releases

The Rio Grande is dying and only a new compact will save her

The Burlington Record | Jul 9, 2018

The Rio Grande is dying. The death of a river, anywhere, is sad and alarming. When that river is the lifeblood of a vast region, it is nothing short of tragic. The causes are both ancient and modern: climate change, ignorance, politics and greed.

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All Rivers Op-Eds

Vanishing Rio Grande puts pressure on San Luis Valley farmers during extreme drought

The Denver Post | Jun 22, 2018

MONTE VISTA — Seldom has the Rio Grande, the nation’s fourth-longest river and the one that nourishes the most drought-prone terrain, flowed so low.

One headwaters tributary curling around the Great Sand Dunes National Park has dried up. The main stem of the Rio Grande probably won’t make it out of Colorado to New Mexico this summer, state water authorities calculate, let alone Texas and Mexico.

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All Rivers In the News

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