The health of the upper Rio Grande Basin is at risk and urgent changes are needed to ensure people and wildlife continue to have access to water, a group of scientists and advocates said Thursday.
The warning was conveyed in a testimony for the river designed by Audubon Southwest, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the World Wildlife Fund to help residents and policymakers better manage its health to understand.
From its headwaters high in the San Juan Mountains west of Creede through New Mexico to Texas, the river serves as an important resource for many farmers and communities in the Southwest. But there is not enough water to meet their needs while maintaining a healthy river ecosystem, the assessment said.
The scientists gave the Upper Rio Grande Basin — which stretches across the Rocky Mountains to near Los Alamos, New Mexico — a “C” for its overall health, rating the basin’s health at 54%. They used several indicators, including water quality, river management and ecology, to determine its score, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The portion of the river that flows through Colorado received a C+ and the grades deteriorated as the river flowed south.
The Colorado section had low rankings for its annual low flow, which was determined by the mean flow of the driest seven-day period in a given year (score 24), and received an F (score 18) for its susceptibility to hazardous events. It received a zero for groundwater, or the change in water level in aquifers in the basin.
It received a perfect score for the number of visitors to the state and national parks over the past year compared to previous years’ visitors and a 91 for bird diversity in the area.
Climate change and land use are putting pressure on the upper Rio Grande, and severe droughts and wildfires are expected to continue to stress the river, according to the report map.
“In New Mexico, we know that water is life, water is sacred, and water is essential to everything we do, and that the life-giving waters of the Rio Grande have nourished our communities for untold generations,” said Democratic US Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico said Thursday during a testimony presentation in Santa Fe.
“But right now, our river is facing the greatest challenges it has likely ever faced, with catastrophic changes coming from climate impacts on snowpack, river currents, and impacts on all of the millions of people and communities who depend on that river for life.” , she said .
Researchers also analyzed different management options to mitigate the effects of climate change on the river and improve its condition. Several options, such as leaving agricultural land fallow, reducing water transportation losses, restarting reservoirs and reducing municipal water needs, show promise for sustaining the rivers in the Rio Grande, the testimony said.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences has developed report maps that analyze conditions for rivers around the world.
The river has been at the center of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar case that has pitted New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado over management of the river. Last month, state officials negotiated a proposed settlement that officials said will end years of fighting, but the federal government and two irrigation districts that depend on the Rio Grande are opposed.
Some of New Mexico’s stretches of river hit record lows earlier this year, prompting some farmers to voluntarily set their fields fallow to help the state meet water-sharing obligations downstream, the Associated Press reported.