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The Future Of The Rio: Agencies Search For Solutions Despite Funding Obstacles

Within Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Socorro, lies a special three-mile stretch of the Rio Grande. At first glance, it looks like any other section of the mid-Rio—but this portion has been readjusted through human intervention, courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Pilot River Realignment Project. 

Jennifer Faler, the area manager of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque office, says this new channel is a much more efficient way to move water through the middle valley.

“This is the answer to the increased depletions that we've been seeing in the channel for the last few decades,” Faler said. “Realign the river to the lowest part of the valley, where it can cut itself a new channel.”                                                

The bureau was tasked with the project after sediment plugs formed within the original channel. Faler says the approx. $5 million realignment project benefits not only the middle Rio Grande but also key stakeholders in Southern New Mexico. 

“This will actually create more water for the farmers down south,” Faler said. “We're in between the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Elephant Butte Irrigation District in Southern New Mexico, so any water savings that we have between these districts will benefit the southern districts.”

A section of the realigned Rio Grande within Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Faler’s team wants to pursue similar realignment projects on a much larger scale but says resources and cooperation from other regulatory agencies present challenges.

One remaining obstacle is balancing vegetation needs while ensuring new plants don’t negatively impact the water supply.   For every mature native tree extracted for projects like this realignment, current U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policy requires ten new plants be introduced to the ecosystem.

“One of our key challenges right now is working with regulators who say, hey, these endangered birds need to have these trees,” Faler said. “If you're going to take out a tree, you need to replace that tree, and right now they even require us to replace more trees than we take out because they are concerned about habitat for birds, as are we. But clearly, those trees in the riparian vegetation consume a lot of water.”

Faler says better water planning is paramount in the state of New Mexico, and that agencies must work together to solve the bigger problems facing the state.

“We've done all the small stuff, it's time to take on some of the bigger issues,” Faler said. “Like the most efficient reservoir management, how can we use our reservoirs in conjunction with each other to save water? How can we do these large-scale river restoration and conveyance projects that take so much time and so many resources?”

Water Resources Engineer Phil King, a member of the state’s Climate and Water Science Advisory Panel, agrees there’s more work to be done to better plan for New Mexico’s water future.

“New Mexico’s water management approach is sort of the three-toed-sloth evolution of water management,” King said. “And those conditions are unfortunately changing dramatically with climate change. What we really do need to do is very rapidly evolve to a very rapidly changing climate.”

Monitoring Efforts

With the transition to a hotter and drier climate, resources aren’t only needed for projects within the river channel itself.  Continual monitoring of the area surrounding the Rio Grande allows agencies to track invasive species and provides information to help better prevent wildfires.

Carmen Briones is with the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute.  On the day KRWG visited, Briones’ team conducted a five-year site visit within the Rio Abajo Conservation Area in Valencia County. 

They’re working in collaboration with the Greater Rio Grande Watershed Alliance, a partnership among agencies, conservation districts, Pueblos and other key stakeholders aimed at improving watershed health through landscape-scale restoration.

“A lot of the time we try to see if the vegetation that is coming back in, if it’s invasive or if it’s native,” Briones said. “What that can tell us is how healthy the area we are in is.” 

The Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District says the land, like many areas within the watershed, is at greater risk of wildfire damage due to the surrounding vegetation.

Monitoring Program Manager Kathryn Mahan, says the institute is taking steps to track when vegetation treatments, such as extraction andmastication, occur to help provide land managers with planning tools.

“If you don't know where your highest fuel loads are, you don't know where to worry most about where to put your resources,” Mahan said. “The way things are now, with a lot of urban development, the way the river has been channelized, less water is in the river. Everything is just drier. There's not the same overbank flow, there's more woody debris accumulating on the landscape.”

The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute says increasing both monitoring and educational outreach efforts will arm key stakeholders with knowledge to better protect New Mexico’s watersheds.

“I feel like there's a lot more money going towards bringing back certain species that are already dead,” Briones said. “I feel like all that money should be used for conservation and monitoring efforts throughout the whole New Mexico area.”

Planning For The Future

That strain on resources isn’t only being felt by the institute, it’s a reality for almost every organization working to protect the Rio Grande and surrounding watersheds.

It’s a reality state lawmakers have been hesitant to devote large amounts of resources to, with the legislature denying a $750,000 request to put together a 50-year water plan.

That lack of legislative response is one reason John D'Antonio resigned from his former post as New Mexico’s state engineer, citing a lack of overall resources as the catalyst for his departure.

While the 50-year water plan is still in development with a more limited budget, Water Resources Engineer Phil King says current policymakers are going to need to make some politically unpopular decisions to better prepare for New Mexico’s water future.

“The analogy I like to make is that if you are piloting a plane and your engine conks out, what do you do?” King said. “Do you pilot it to the ground? Or do you put it on autopilot?  We need to pilot it to the ground.”

In the meantime, agencies are working with the limited resources they have to implement solutions and monitor current progress.  

Madison Staten was a Multimedia Reporter for KRWG Public Media from 2020-2022.