SAN ANTONIO, N.M. — Galen Hecht was looking for silvery minnows in small pools surrounding long isles of sediment in a shallow, muddy stretch of the Rio Grande about 90 miles south of Albuquerque.
All he found was one dead minnow, floating in a small pool of water evaporating in the desert heat.
Two weeks ago, this part of the river near the small community of San Antonio was completely dry, said Hecht, who campaigns for the river on behalf of Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, an environmental advocacy group. Then, he said, he found hundreds of dead silvery minnow, an endangered species, in the waterway.
“I was sad to see that this minnow had made it through the drying of the river only to die weeks later,” Hecht said of the lone fish he found.
Other advocates for wildlife in the region expressed similar concerns.
Doris Rhodes, who owns over 600 acres along the river near San Antonio and has pushed for efforts to save the silvery minnow, said it’s “difficult to see the river as dry as it is now.”
Following the past year’s uncommonly snowy winter in the mountains of Colorado and Northern New Mexico, which feed the Rio Grande, then a wet spring and a robust monsoon, the parched stretch of river in Central New Mexico was an unwelcome surprise to many who advocate for a so-called living river, one that runs year-round — in particular as experts warn they expect increasingly warm and dry conditions in the region to become the new normal.
An always-wet river does much more than just look good, advocates say. It provides sustenance for wildlife and vegetation, and supports underground aquifer systems.
The silvery minnow, listed as an endangered species since 1994, has in many ways become a poster child for the health of the river — it’s the canary in the coal mine struggling to survive in the face of decreasing oxygen and water.
But river advocates say their desire for a river running year-round goes beyond the fate of the minnow.
“Every water manager, including me, is guilty of talking about the silvery minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher” — an endangered bird in the region — “because they are the indicators species for the health of the Rio Grande,” said Jen Pelz, Wild Rivers Program director for WildEarth Guardians.
“But we would love to have a sustainable river system,” she said, “one where water taken out doesn’t impact the wildlife and the bosque and the birds that people like to watch.”
Others say a dry Rio Grande — at least this time of year — is normal in that area, particularly because the 1938 Rio Grande Compact sends much of the river’s flows to farmers in the surrounding valleys.
And wildlife adapts, they say.
“Desert rivers do dry,” said John Fleck, director of water resources at the University of New Mexico. “A lot of the water diverted from the river is for communities that have agricultural life — especially in Socorro County, where we want to grow crops and farming makes money.”
Nonetheless, the drying is “really hard on the silvery minnow,” he said.
David Gensler, water operations manger for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers irrigation water to some 60,000 acres of farmland in the Central New Mexico river valley, agreed. He said a dry riverbed is “entirely normal for this stretch of the river every year, and probably was even in prehistoric times.”
But given the healthy spring runoff of melted mountain snowpack that surged through the Rio Grande earlier this year, the slow drying of the riverbed in the Socorro region is a reminder for advocates of a living river that an ages-old conflict in the West — over water rights — is still simmering.
For example, WildEarth Guardians recently appealed a state District Court ruling in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a case questioning whether the Army Corps had done enough to ensure the protection of the silvery minnow. Opening arguments for that appeal took place this week in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado.
WildEarth Guardians also questions whether the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District needs all the water it sets aside for irrigation.
Gensler said the conservancy district is adhering to the compact. It’s not as if the district can release extra water to the river without violating compact mandates in what essentially is a system of water debits and credits.
Other issues are at play, those involved with the river say, including climate change, drought, dams and other infrastructure — such as a conveyance channel along the Rio Grande, created near San Antonio in the 1950s to capture leaks and overspill and send them downriver to Elephant Butte Lake.
Complicating matters, Article VII of the Rio Grande Compact says that when the combined storage of water in the Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs drops below 400,000 acre-feet, Colorado and New Mexico can’t store water in any of the upstream reservoirs built after 1929, such as El Vado Lake on the Chama River.
They’re required to send the water to Elephant Butte, which in turn sends it to Texas and points south.
Still, advocates for a year-round river believe more can be done to ensure the Rio Grande doesn’t dry up.
Pelz wants to find a way to finance a deep-dive study into the river’s flow system, including a look into when would be the best time to hold and release water up north to create ideal spawning conditions for the silvery minnows.
Gina Dello Russo of the 25-year-old Save Our Bosque Task Force — which works to protect the bosque ecosystem along the Rio Grande — said her organization just received a $100,000 grant to continue to work on a plan to “look at the state of the river and what is feasible, what is realistic, what is sustainable for the Rio Grande through this reach of the river.”
She said the first phase of that plan should be completed by next spring.
Fleck and others said it’s not an easy problem to solve, though some of his students are going to begin looking for solutions this year. “The question is, what are we willing to give up to put water in the river channel?”
If Hecht had his way, humans would let the river take care of itself; they would let “nature engineer the Rio Grande.”
Barring that idea, he’d like to see more effort put into water conservation efforts on agricultural lands to “send some of the water back to the river.”
He knows there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer.
But, he said, “Water is life. When the river dries up, we see biodiversity being destroyed.”