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Rerouting Water Benefits Native Ecosystem Along The Rio Grande

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The Rio Grande is dry for most of the year in southern New Mexico. Its waters are held back in large reservoirs upstream. The water is released in the summer months when farmers need it to irrigate their crops. (Mónica Ortiz Uribe)

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Drought across the West is raising questions about how we manage water in this region.

In southern New Mexico, humans drastically altered the course of the Rio Grande decades ago to better serve farmers and an international water treaty. As a result, native plants and animals suffered, and now the riverbed is dry for most of the year. Today a government-led effort is attempting to restore the river to a more natural state.

On a recent afternoon a tractor plunged a corkscrew drill 10 feet into a dry bank of the Rio Grande west of Las Cruces. Tyler Rogers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then dunked what looked like an oversized twig into the hole and filled it with dirt.

Rogers is part of a crew planting coyote willow, a shrub-like tree that used to grow in abundance here. It's a first step in a monumental effort to restore native vegetation in 30 sites along a 100-mile stretch of the Rio Grande.

"It's kind of a pilot program to see if we can grow trees in this area," Rogers said.

In early spring, the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico looks more like a yawning dirt ditch than a river. Humans engineered it this way back in the late 1930s. The idea was to create a controlled channel to efficiently deliver water to farmers and neighboring Mexico.

Today the Rio Grande is mostly a dry river bed tattooed with ATV tracks and littered with multiple generations of Budweiser cans.

"So what we see in the river right now is more like puddles," said Beth Bardwell with the Audubon Society.

The river is dry because the water is stored in huge reservoirs upstream. Every drop in those reservoirs belongs to someone — farmers, the nearby city of El Paso, and Mexico.

Every summer the water is released from the reservoirs and delivered to those owners via dams and concrete diversion canals. When all have taken their share, there's no water left for the river itself.

"We've kind of turned our back to the Rio Grande," said Bardwell.

The principal owners of the water sitting in those reservoirs belong to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The district is a conglomerate of New Mexico's largest and most productive farms. Back in the 1930s the district was also the main lobbyist for and beneficiary of the taxpayer funded project that transformed the Rio Grande into a controlled channel.

"The environmental community was not pleased with that," said Gary Esslinger, the current manager of the irrigation district.

Esslinger now part of an unlikely alliance between environmentalists and the federal government to rehabilitate the Rio Grande.

The district’s cooperation spared it from regulation under the Endangered Species Act.

“Working together with these other agencies we got something done that was quite good," he said. "For us it was a win-win."

After a decade of negotiation the district allowed the sale or lease of river water to the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission. The IBWC is the federal agency leading the restoration program. The agency can now use the water to irrigate native cottonwoods, willows and shrubs.

"They classified the irrigation of native trees as an agricultural use. We're essentially farmers," said Elizabeth Verdecchia, Natural Resources Specialist for the IBWC.

But instead of watering pecan trees or alfalfa the IBWC is watering native vegetation. Last June the agency celebrated the irrigation of its first five acres of restoration land.

"The site was really looking amazing after having just two irrigations," Verdecchia said. "There was lush vegetation, there was underbrush [and] native grasses."

With a goal of irrigating 500 acres, the agency still has a long way to go. It’s currently reaching out to water owners in the Elephant Butte Irrigation District who are interested in leasing or selling water back to nature.