New SWEC Report Proposes a Way to Save Rio Grande Fishes

American Eels were once abundant in the Rio Grande

The Rio Grande in Southern New Mexico has experienced the loss of up to two-thirds of its native fish species due to a century of dam-building, channel-straightening, and diversion of its flows for agriculture. The Southwest Environmental Center recently released a report that proposes novel solutions for restoring native fish and a path forward for redressing this historical injustice.

“For too long, we’ve tolerated management that has ignored the needs of the many species of plants and animals that depend upon a healthy river,” Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center said. “Our report proposes concrete steps that can be taken today to recover some of the amazing native fishes that were once found in the Rio Grande.” 

The report “Conserving Native Rio Grande Fishes in Southern New Mexico and West Texas: A Conceptual Approach,” proposes habitat enhancements that can be undertaken without major changes to current river management. The report identifies “wet” spots in the Rio Grande that could be restored and enhanced to create aquatic habitats. These habitats would provide a refuge for fish species in times of low or no river flows during the non-irrigation months when releases from upstream reservoirs are curtailed. When the Rio Grande is flowing again during the irrigation season, fish would be able to move back into the river channel.

Dr. David Propst from University of New Mexico and SWEC's executive director Kevin Bixby authored the 46-page report. Although specific to the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and west Texas, the approach it describes could be applied to other highly modified river systems in the West. 

The Southwest Environmental Center has been advocating for the health of the Rio Grande for over twenty-three years. In 2001, SWEC pioneered the Rio Grande Oral History project, collecting stories from members of the community who remember the river for what it used to be: a source of recreation, shade, and sustenance. They describe a living river with giant cottonwoods, fish, turtles, and hundreds of migratory birds. 

Beginning with the completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916, the river has been stripped of vegetation and reduced to a trickle or even dried for most of the year, leading to the local extinction of most native fish species and near total elimination of bosques, wetlands, and other floodplain habitats. While it may take many more years of advocacy to restore the Rio Grande to even a shadow of its former state, SWEC’s report provides a path forward with small restoration projects that could make a great deal of difference for native fish.

In addition to its advocacy work, SWEC has undertaken on-the-ground habitat restoration projects, including Picacho Wetlands (now the Mesilla Valley Bosque) and La Mancha wetland.