The Rio Grande--a river in trouble.
The Rio Grande has sustained people and wildlife for millennia in the desert Southwest. As the largest river system in the Chihuahuan Desert, it is a vital habitat for hundreds of wildlife species. Now the river itself needs our help.
The Rio Grande in Selden Canyon, NM
The river once flowed according to its own rhythms. It ran all year round in most years, with peak flows in late spring and early summer following snowmelt in the mountains upstream. Sometimes the river would flood its banks, even change course entirely. These seasonal high flows shaped the ecosystem, creating an everchanging mosaic of plant communities and habitats in the floodplain, including riparian woodlands (“bosques”), meadows, marshes and ponds. They created the conditions needed for cottonwood trees to reproduce, and they signaled to native fish that it was time to spawn.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge provides a glimpse of how important the Rio Grande was--and still is--for birds and other wildlife.
All that changed with the completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 as part of the Rio Grande Project, allowing humans to determine when the river flowed and when it didn’t. Every year since then, the river has been subject to a manmade drought, turned on and off to meet the needs of downstream irrigators, with no releases in the non-irrigation season between October and February. Adding insult to injury, the river was straightened and channelized in the 1920s and 1930s in the name of flood control and efficiency.
Today the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and west Texas is in trouble. Most of the wetlands and bosques are gone, along with two-thirds of the native fish species. The goal of our Rio Grande program is to restore the ecosystem so that it once again functions as a self-regulating river that can sustain natural habitats and wildlife as well as human communities. Projects like the Picacho Wetlands and La Mancha Wetland will restore critically important habitat for native fish and other wildlife.