Thoughts on the Rio Grande

“Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama, you’re not going to manhandle it into anything entirely new. It’s limited by what it has been, by what’s happened to it. And a people, until that time when it’s uprooted and scattered and so mixed with other peoples that it has in fact perished, is much the same in this as land. It inherits.

― John Graves, Goodbye to a River: A Narrative

What exactly is in a River? It’s a good question to ask before one dives headfirst into some attempt at life and wilderness metaphor; before waxing poetic about a ditch and a trivial sized body of moving water.

The Rio Grande headwaters above Creede, CO

As with so many things, this question becomes more complex the closer one gets to it. So, for brevities sake the next logical question is: What is in this river? If you point it out on the world map, the Rio Grande is nothing more than a small-medium sized drainage coming out of the southern Rocky Mountains that slowly winds its way down into its berth at the Gulf of Mexico. A closer view brings us to arguably the most historically and culturally significant river in the American Southwest.

                     Rio Grande Watershed

For millennia Native American cultures and civilizations based themselves around the lifeblood that the Rio Grande offered in the arid regions it passes through along its course. The abundant history, modern cultural diversity, and countless archeological sites that line its banks are all testaments to that fact. The Spanish colonization of their northern territories, a crucial chapter in the story of the European conquest of the new world, was founded around the long strip of green that they called “El Río Bravo Del Norte”—the rough, wild, or fierce river of the north. Large cities of today such as Albuquerque, El Paso, and Laredo would not exist were it not for El Rio Bravo Del Norte. In modern times the Rio Grande has functioned as a large percentage of the international boundary between the United States and Mexico, adding an additional layer to an already polemic concept of what it is.

 The Rio Grande between El Paso and Cuidad Juarez

For myself, growing up on the Texas border with Mexico, but also spending a significant amount of time in northern New Mexico, it was always so interesting to me how the personality and conception of the river changed once one traveled north and got away from the border. The river goes from being some huge barrier separating countries, an immense persona if you will, to simply another aspect of a large landscape.

In a lecture about river ecology I heard Far Flung Adventures owner and overall champion of the Rio Grande “Uncle” Steve Harris describe a river’s constant desire to maintain what he called a “dynamic equilibrium”. He was describing how when a river is dammed, naturally or otherwise, and sedimentation occurs, the river simultaneously demands that erosion increase along the banks downstream in order to recoup that lost sediment. A dynamic equilibrium, such that as much as the Rio Grande forms a legal barrier in our abstract political constructs, it is at the exact same time a place for children to swim on a hot summer day and lay out to dry along its banks beneath the pines, cottonwoods, tamarisks, or mesquites.

       Desert scrublands around the Rio Grande in south Texas

In that way, a river resides at the confluence of equilibrium. It seems a bit of a nature writing cliché to call a river a free spirit, but there is no more apt of a term to describe something that with such inanimate patience will always, always get its way. And in keeping with its own internal system of balances, even a river itself cannot escape its own free spirit.

It is interesting that no matter the modern worlds disconnection with the sources of its comforts and abundances, we are still just as dependent on Mother Nature as we have ever been.  And this fact is scarcely more present than in the alpine farmlands, deserts valleys and coastal scrublands that line the Rio Grande. Here in New Mexico the persistence of a historically rural culture and the use of traditional Spanish farming and water sharing techniques such as the acequia system have given the common citizen an above average eye and care for the health of the state’s river systems.

                  Communities come together for acequia cleaning days

It is the hope that along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico there will continue to be more stewards of sustainable use per capita than many places not required to be so in tune with or dependent on what is in reality such a delicate and fickle resource.

How is the snowpack? Is the dam upstream releasing? Are we in a drought? What is the alfalfa market doing? 

The answers to all these questions affect the condition of one of New Mexico and Texas’ most valuable resources. With complex structures such as river systems now often being treated more like giant water gardens, it is worth noting that the Rio Grande is also perhaps one of the most mismanaged and exploited waterways. Especially when contrasted with the mostly desert ecosystems it passes through and so what the river’s health means to those who live along it.

                      The Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico

So, to ask again: What is in a river? What is in this river? What is in our river? Well, the one thing that is for sure is that just as John Graves so beautifully illustrates in the quote above, what it is is never a clean slate. A river is an inheritance of all that has happened to it and an instant measurement of what is happening to it right now. It is a litmus test of climate, season, usage, politics, and environmental legacy. It remains paramount that our rivers remain clean and healthy, because in short, what is in a river? We are in a river.


 Putting People and Rivers Together