Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: the bridge at San Marcial

From this morning’s newspaper, a visit with John Horning to the railroad bridge at San Marcial (sub/ad req.), one of the choke points that prevents high flows on the Middle Rio Grande through central New Mexico:

The railroad bridge, and similar spots where too much water could damage property, prevent the high spring flows that used to spread out into riverside woods and regenerate the ecosystem.

Seven years ago, Horning points out, as part of an ecosystem restoration plan, federal officials committed to realigning the bridge to allow higher flows. The project is years behind schedule and looks like it may never be done.

To Horning, executive director of the Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, the choke point at San Marcial is a big deal.

Others argue this is the new reality on the Rio Grande….

Valencia County farmer Janet Jarratt argued in an interview that what farmers do in diverting water from the river each spring, spreading it out and greening up the valley floor, is the closest thing we have anymore to the natural Rio Grande flows of the past.

At a talk last year Jarratt, the current chair of the board of directors of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, interspersed slides of wonkish water policy bullet points with pictures of cranes in her fields as a reminder of what she was talking about.

“We have to think about what ‘the ecosystem’ means,” Jarratt said.

The tension between those two viewpoints is a familiar one in the West precisely because they are so hard to reconcile. Neither is “right” in any absolute sense.

Different people value water and the natural world in different ways. We use our political system to sort out the resulting disagreements. This is how we ended up with the Rio Grande we have — heavily engineered, designed first and foremost to move water for human use and prevent flooding. That is largely what the people who live here, acting through their political institutions, seem to have wanted.

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