Anyone standing on the banks of the Rio Grande upstream of Presidio might be excused for asking what is great or wild (Mexicans call it the “Wild River of the North”) about the sluggish stream of brown water flowing by. Fortunately, the brown stream is joined at this point by the fast-flowing Rio Conchos, three times wider. This life-saving tributary, which rises in the Copper Canyon sierra 348 miles away, revitalizes the Rio Grande as it continues its journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
To find out how the Rio Grande got to this sorry state I recently drove to the source of the river in Colorado. I then followed it as it flowed south through New Mexico, turning southeast in El Paso, still without doubt a river. But at my last sighting, to the north of Candelaria, the river was no more. A gentle, unassuming stream is all that is left. It is this level of flow which appears at Presidio.
To get to the headwaters of the Rio Grande I drove 676 miles to Creede, Colorado. I was fortunate to have made contact with Sarah Hext, for many years a teacher in Alpine, who has a house near Creede. It was she who was able, through a friend, to line up two ATV’S.
The Rio Grande headwaters lie on the east slope of the San Juan Range in the Rio Grande National Forest in southwest Colorado, not far from Creede. Access is via Forest Road 562 that leads up to Stony Pass (12,592 feet) on the Continental Divide. In addition to ATVs, jeeps and trucks, there were cyclists ascending from Silverton to the west, and through-hikers on the Continental Divide Trail, which crosses Stony Pass here. It’s a popular destination, especially for jeeps and ATVs
The mountain landscape was mainly green as we bumped along, and the open spaces carpeted with flowers, owing to unusual rains. Some patches of snow remained at the higher elevations. The forested slopes were recovering well from a huge fire of 3 years previously, except for older spruce trees which were dying from beetle attacks. Marmots scuttled across the track on their way to their holes. It is here that three streams (Bear Creek, Pole Creek and West Pole Creek), come together and where this happens the Rio Grande is born. There was energy and purpose in this flow of water, the start of a 1,896-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico.
I drove south and crossed back into New Mexico. Near Taos, the Rio Grande is joined by the Red River, and near here is the impressive 800 foot deep Rio Grande Gorge, spanned by a metal bridge. South of Taos our river started to show its spirit; this stretch has a Class III rafting classification
Much further south in New Mexico, I visited Elephant Butte dam. This large dam, built in 1916, covers a total of 34,521 acres, when full. Today it was only 15% full, and the overall depth was 4 feet. Because of this, I was surprised to see a substantial flow of water exiting below the dam, a fast flow 50 feet wide.
It is this area of New Mexico south of Elephant Butte dam which is the subject of an escalating war of words between Texas and New Mexico. Both are signatories, with Colorado, to the Water Contract of 1938, which sought to distribute equitably the flow of water from the Rio Grande. The problem is that the Contract did not specify exactly how much water Texas, the most downstream state, would be entitled to. Historically, 43% of the river’s water has gone to Texas, and 57% to New Mexico.
Now Texas is asserting that New Mexico farmers, south of Elephant Butte dam, are syphoning off huge amounts of water that should be flowing to El Paso. Texas has allocated $5 million to fight this claim in court. New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, has stated that “not one more drop of water will be released” (to Texas).
At my next stop, just west of El Paso, a substantial flow of water, tinted brown due to recent rains, flowed under Jose Zamora Bridge. Shortly after, the river becomes canalized and lined by concrete as it flows through El Paso. It is impossible to get a photograph of the river here since an 18 foot-high wire mesh fence lines the river bank, and railroad tracks also prevent access. At Fabens, 30 miles west, there is still sufficient flow to irrigate riverside fields for cotton growing. The fence is still in position here.
Downstream from Fort Quitman (20 miles south of Sierra Blanca), and before it reaches the village of Porvenir, site of a massacre in 1918, and later the old military post of Candelaria, the river enters into what has become known as the Forgotten Reach. At this point, choked with constantly advancing tamarisk trees, it loses force and direction as it multiplies into numerous small streams. It emerges, almost sucked dry, upstream from Candelaria, as a gentle, small stream, ankle-deep as it widens or jumpable at the narrow sections. The tamarisk, tamarix ramosissima, or salt cedar, was imported in bulk in the 1930s and is now a major scourge of rivers in western states.
But, there is some good news. According to Raymond Skiles, Wildlife Biologist at Big Bend National Park, there is hope that the rampant expansion of the tamarisk may be contained and cut back. The weapon is a beetle, imported from Crete, which loves to eat tamarisk leaves. Through constant defoliation by the hungry beetles, the tamarisk will become largely suppressed. Here’s hoping we may get our river back to something like its old level.