Steve Harris’ backyard is drying up.
The cigar-smoking river guru considers the Rio Grande his home. Protecting the river — “the queen of them all,” as he calls it — is personal.
Although he got his start in journalism, Harris — known as “Uncle Steve” to some — has become an unofficial expert and longtime advocate for New Mexico’s dwindling waterways.
As a river guide and owner of Far Flung Adventures in Taos, a white-water rafting company, Harris takes intrepid adventurers and bureaucrats on trips along the Rio Chama. But the Pilar resident is more renowned for his ability to help others connect with New Mexico rivers, his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s waterways and his tireless work as a river advocate for more than 35 years.
Because of his river advocacy efforts, Harris, 71, has been named as one of the Santa Fe New Mexican’s 10 Who Made a Difference for 2019.
He has taken tourists, locals, kids from Albuquerque and politicians along the Rio Chama, including U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“The concept is that they’re making decisions without the full picture,” Harris says. “You get them out there and you see birds … you see beautiful wild places where you can stop and enjoy, you talk to people with other deeply felt experiences and you get working relationships between people who are interested in the conservation of rivers with folks who have authority over how the rivers are managed.”
The trips have left an indelible mark on many — from scientists to state lawmakers.
“If rivers represent the allegorical lifeblood of New Mexico, then Steve Harris has been the state’s unofficial cardiologist for the last 35 years,” says Paul Bauer, emeritus principal geologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
Bauer has been a friend of Harris’ for more than two decades, a friendship that led to a book, The Rio Grande. It’s part science text and part rafting guide. There’s even a waterproof edition.
“I learned a lot of what I know about boating from Steve, and when there was something I didn’t know when I was writing the book, the first guy I’d go to was Steve Harris,” Bauer says. “He’s one of the few established experts on recreational use of the Rio Grande, of boating ethics, of federal government management of rivers.”
Apart from hosting annual trips that have turned conversations into conservation policy, Harris has testified in Roundhouse committee hearings on scores of proposals that would affect rivers.
A native of western Oklahoma, Harris has lived in New Mexico since 1979 and in Pilar since 1996, after starting a nonprofit called Rio Grande Restoration.
Harris’ river interest began after a 1957 trip to a Tulsa, Okla., museum with his father. The Cimarron and Arkansas rivers were flooded at the time.
“That made such a big impression on me, that this little floodplain was pulled side to side with water,” he recalls. “It was very otherworldly. It wasn’t television. It wasn’t school. It wasn’t downtown.”
That passion continued into adulthood. Harris has been instrumental in the Rio Chama Flow Project, a mission to restore the river’s flow to a more natural rhythm. He also was a major force behind convincing lawmakers to pass the Strategic Water Reserve in 2005, which allows water to be designated or purchased for water conservation.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, the Democratic majority whip, says a number of bills she has sponsored emerged from conversations she had on multiday Rio Chama trips with Harris and others.
Those include the 2003 greywater bill, which allows people under certain conditions to use up to 250 gallons per day of water from bathtubs, showers, washbasins and washing machines for household gardening, composting, landscaping or irrigation without a permit. It’s meant to conserve water.
“I’ve been to his house and it’s filled from floor to ceiling with books and articles and photographs of water policy and water law,” Stewart says of Harris. “He’s well loved. A nice nickname for him is ‘River Daddy’ or ‘Uncle Steve.’ He knows more than anybody I know about the river.”
As global temperatures climb amid river overuse, the Rio Grande is drying up. Other rivers, such as the Rio Chama, are also at risk from years of overuse that have left the ecosystems looking more like canals than natural river ecosystems, Harris says.
Harris continues educating people about the importance of protecting the rivers. It’s a matter of habit meeting a desire for change and a healthy dose of reverence.
“I guess you’d call it momentum,” he says. “The fact that we really haven’t made any big change. They’re still developing rivers like crazy.
“This is a deep and ongoing problem, and it’s a problem for everybody that uses water,” he adds.
“But it’s particularly a problem for people who love nature and love wild things. Something that’s controlled and manipulated by human institutions is not as exciting or diverse as something that’s self-organized and works on its own time irrespective of humans like a river does.”