A river with no water

After three recent reporting trips to southern New Mexico, I can’t quite get my head around this:

Rio Grande, April 2013

Rio Grande, Hatch NM, April 2013


It’s the Rio Grande. The entire stretch through southern New Mexico has been completely dry since last summer, save for a few places where groundwater seeps, either hydrothermal stuff or leakage from upstream dams, wet the channel. Susan Montoya Bryan, a journalist pal with the AP who’s been grappling same as me with how to explain the drought, wrote this:

Only puddles remain, leaving gangs of carp to huddle together in a desperate effort to avoid the fate of thousands of freshwater clams, their shells empty and broken on the river bottom.

There’s a lot of left brain explaining to be done, involving climate variability, water management decisions, upstream dams and downstream farmers. Mostly that’s what I do. But there was something gut going on when I walked out onto the dry riverbed today, past the old tire and the off-roaders’ tread marks, beneath a swarm of cliff swallows that had built mud nests in the nearby bridge abutment, waiting for the bugs.

Will there be enough bugs?


  1. When I was young, there were several fewer reservoirs and diversions on the Rio Grande. We frequently crossed the Rio Grande and we played a sort of game, “water no water”. I remember times when it seemed the river would never have water in it again… These wet and dry cycles and occasional flooding were instrumental to the survival of the Silver Minnow and surely an entirely different river ecology. Building wetlands instead of levies would have been so much more understanding… I suppose the mentality of conquest of Nature goes with something call the Army Corp of Engineers?

    Yes, surely we have over used the precious resources, water and everything else in New Mexico, but a “full river” depends on the reservoirs and that is a bit of an illusion.

    The river will survive, full or empty and it will have another day as drought subsides and snow pack returns. Though I wonder whether humans will vanish along with the water for a season? And if they do come back, after withstanding their self made ecological collapse, will they tell stories to remind them to abandon the ways that abhors the ecology from whence they come?

  2. @Philipn – Thanks for the comments.

    The stretch of river where the picture was taken, below Elephant Butte, is heavily managed. But since the dam was closed in 1916, the USGS gauge records show that it has never been dry this late in the spring. Since the 1950s, they’ve often dried the river there through the winter. But for essentially a century its operation as a human-managed system, where all water depends on dam releases, it’s never been this dry there. And as for the silvery minnow, it was long ago extirpated from that stretch of the river. It survived natural wet and dry cycles, but not human management.

  3. “Heavily managed” = vulnerable to management mistakes (unless dry is allowed). Time to talk about environmental base flows as a constraint on ALL other uses.

  4. Pingback: Southwest drought. The Rio Grande is dry in New Mexico - Not the Singularity

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