Claire Tiwald and Allegra Huston

 

The wild and beautiful Río Grande del Norte, designated one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers by act of Congress in 1968, officially became part of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument on March 25, 2013. Rising in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, it runs through New Mexico into Texas, and finally into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet only 6 percent of the river crosses the Colorado state line.

 

Water dries up in arid country, but controversy over it, never,” wrote Sam Bingham in The Last Ranch. Water levels in the Río Grande are determined according to a compact drawn up in the 1930s—which bears no relation to today’s economy, population centers or water use. The decade of the 2010s is bringing drought—caused by human-induced climate change, some say, or by millennial weather cycles. Whatever the reason, the fact is plain and harsh. There is less water to go around. The Río Grande is being sucked dry.

 

A huge tourist industry thrives off the waters of the Río Grande—thrilling in places, mellow in others. Tourism is a $5.7-billion industry in New Mexico (according to the NM Water Resources Research Institute), and 66 percent of that comes from fishing, hunting and outdoor recreation. The world-famous Taos Box, a 16-mile stretch of river running through the rugged wilderness of a spectacular 800-foot-deep gorge, offers fantastic Class IV whitewater, bringing tourists from across the US, Latin America, Europe and beyond to northern NM. Sadly, they are often disappointed because the river is so drastically depleted, even during the spring snowmelt. During peak tourist season, July and August, the Taos Box is rarely runnable—an unnatural situation that dramatically impacts the tourist-driven economy of Taos County, one of the poorest counties in the nation.

 

Cisco Guevara, founder and president of Los Ríos River Runners, NM’s oldest and largest rafting company, recalls the time he sprained his knee swimming Power Line Falls, the steepest drop in the Taos Box. “We realized that with the water not getting as high as it used to get, we would have to run lower water levels if we wanted to stay in business. So we perfected some pretty daring moves. At the top of Power Line, at low water, a little rock pokes out at the very lip of the falls. We’d park the boat on it and have the people scramble out and huddle together on a larger flat rock while the guide dragged the boat over the obstacle, then anchored it by sitting directly over the rock. The people would jump back in, and they’d bounce the boat off the rock and shoot off down the cascade. Then plastic boats became popular because they slid so easily over the rocks. The first time I took a plastic boat, I had to do this move, but the boat didn’t stick. I yelled to the people to jump—two did and two didn’t. So now the boat was unbalanced and we flipped and swam the falls, getting pummeled and pounded on the way down. I was on crutches for weeks, though I did throw them away for a night to dance at the party for my son’s christening.”

 

New Mexico river guides have had to be inventive. Guevara recalls another epiphany: the moment when he created a low-water funyak adventure in a remote section of the Río Grande Gorge called the Middle Box (upstream of the Taos Box), with no road access. The rapids there are much smaller and don’t require so much river flow. Funyaks could be carried down the trail on horseback or on specially rigged bicycles—an idea taken from the tactics of the Viet Cong, who transported rocket launchers across similarly rugged terrain in this fashion. “There I was,” Guevara says, “a macho river guide, stuck with little boats and lower water and smaller rapids. But this part of the canyon is so isolated, so pristine, so beautiful. The power and magic of this is just as great as the big stuff. It’s just a different kind of adventure.”

 

At the time of writing, 94 percent of the Río Grande goes to irrigate crops in the fertile San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, an area of over 600,000 acres—the size of Rhode Island. The primary crop is hay, much of which is trucked south, on roads parallel to the Río Grande, to dairy farms in southern NM. The dairy industry is one of the most heavily subsidized industries in the US, and it flourishes in areas near the Mexican border due mainly to cheap labor and lax regulations. In fact, one of the world’s largest cheese factories is located in Clovis, NM.

 

Laws governing the use of Río Grande water date back to 1906, when a treaty between the US and Mexico made Río Grande river flow an international issue. The Río Grande Compact, an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, was ratified in 1938. Favoring English-speaking areas over Spanish-speaking and Native-populated areas, and driven primarily by agricultural imperatives, the compact from its inception took no account of northern NM; the Río Grande, at the bottom of its spectacular gorge, was unusable for agriculture there and therefore its waters were deemed irrelevant. For 27 years Colorado ignored the compact, until finally the Supreme Court ordered Colorado to deliver the agreed amount of water to NM. Unwilling to allow the Río Grande to flow through the San Luis Valley and away south across the border, Colorado chose to comply by drilling a hole through the Continental Divide, to bring water that would ordinarily flow to the Pacific across into the Río Grande drainage. This massive undertaking, paid for with federal dollars, is known as the San Juan-Chama Project. The water, which is stored in Heron and El Vado lakes, flows down the Río Chama and joins the Río Grande at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo north of Española—thus perpetuating the dewatering of the main stem of the river to the north of that point. The Río Grande del Norte, one of the great natural wonders of NM and the US as a whole, and our newest National Monument, is being robbed.

 

The Río Grande Compact allows Colorado to take 75 percent of water flow in normal years and up to 95 percent in “drought” years. But what is normal, and what is drought? The 20 wettest years on record came at the end of the last century, so what seems like drought now is very likely to be the new normal. Will the Río Grande be drained down to 5 percent of its natural flow year after year after year? And is agriculture—particularly agriculture that has ballooned in scale due to federal subsidies rather than genuine demand—really the only beneficial use of this natural resource, which should be shared by us all?

 

 

Claire Tiwald is a mixed-media artist and travel guide specializing in the US Southwest. Her work can be seen at www.clairetiwald.com.

Allegra Huston, a writer and editor based in Taos, is the author of Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found, and writer/producer of the award-winning short film, Good Luck, Mr. Gorski.