Flowing through the canyons and mesas of the U.S. Southwest to the Mexican border, the Colorado River and its tributaries form the lifeblood of growing cities, struggling rural communities and spectacular populations of wildlife of all kinds. A 1944 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico guarantees the delivery of water south of the border. Yet mounting consumption and persistent drought are seriously straining water supplies in the Colorado River Basin, with an estimated 35 percent loss in stored water registered during the past 12 years, according to the U.S Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation.
On both sides of the border, citizen activism to save the Colorado River for current and future generations is on the upswing. In April, a new Latino environmental organization called Nuestro Rio (Our River) held activities in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado to promote Colorado River conservation.
“It’s really important that folks understand the connection to the Colorado,” Deanna Archuleta, New Mexico coordinator for Nuestro Rio, told FNS. While most people will probably identify the Rio Grande with New Mexico, the Gila River in Southwestern New Mexico is an ecologically important but popularly unrecognized tributary of the Colorado River, Archuleta stressed. “I oftentimes think of the Gila as New Mexico’s forgotten river,” she said.
Farther north in Albuquerque, approximately 50 percent of the drinking supply now comes from the San Juan-Chama project that pipes in water from a Colorado River tributary over the Continental Divide and into New Mexico’s largest city. According to Archuleta, New Mexico has maxed out its Colorado River water allocation.
Based on government studies, a Nuestro Rio fact sheet summarizes the environmental services and economic impact rendered by the Colorado River and its several tributaries. Providing drinking water to 36 million people in 7 states, the river system is vital to the cultural survival of a least 15 Native American tribes and communities. Irrigating close to four million acres of cropland, the Colorado is estimated to provide water for 15 percent of the nation’s crops and 13 percent of the country’s livestock.
“The Colorado River is a fundamental component of our recreation and tourism industry in the West, which supports nearly 800,000 jobs in the seven Colorado River states,” Nuestro Rio states.
To raise consciousness about the Colorado River, Nuestro Rio commissioned a corrido, or Spanish language ballad, that invokes the memory of Cesar Chavez, who was born near the banks of the river.
At a recent Albuquerque event, longtime New Mexican musician Lenore Armijo performed the song that picks up on the slogan of Chavez’s farmworker movement. “Si se puede salvar nuestro rio,” Armijo sang at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. “Yes we can. Our river can be saved.”
Following Armijo’s musical presentation, a small crowd heard supporting comments from representatives of New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and New Mexico Congressman Martin Heinrich. Katherine Yuhas, water conservation officer for the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, reported that local water conservation efforts had succeeded in cutting per capita water consumption from 250 gallons daily in 1995 to 150 in 2011. At the same time, “water levels are going up in the aquifer for the first time in decades,” Yuhas said.
After the event, Yuhas told FNS that the water authority will convene citizens’ meetings this year as part of the process of coming up with a new 10-year plan for the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County area. “It’s a great time to get involved,” she urged.
Representing the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service at the Albuquerque gathering, Seth Fiedler spoke about financial and technical assistance resources available to farmers and ranchers in all of New Mexico’s counties.
“All the farmers and ranchers are very concerned about the ongoing drought,” Fiedler told FNS. The environmental crisis, he said, has producers making hard choices about what type of crops to grow or whether to cut back on livestock herds. “These are the sorts of decisions that they are making on an average basis,” Fiedler added.
A former Bernalillo County Commissioner who returned to Albuquerque after a stint in Washington with the Obama administration, Archuleta said Nuestro Rio will be organizing educational events across New Mexico in the coming months. Climate change, Archueleta said, is making the future availability of Colorado River water a tricky proposition. Nuestro Rio is advocating enhanced urban conservation, improved irrigation efficiency and water banks that transfer water rights on a temporary or permanent basis.
Nuestro Rio’s campaign takes place within a process underway between the Bureau of Reclamation and stakeholders from the seven Colorado River states to map out solutions for overcoming water supply imbalances.
Meanwhile, in another initiative, 25 environmental organizations sent a letter this month to the U.S. Department of State urging cooperation with Mexico in restoring the water flow to the Colorado River Delta.
“We need to focus on collaboration and compromise,” said Gary Wockner of the Save the Colorado River campaign. “The U.S. and Mexico have a historic opportunity to meet their own water needs while allotting a small flow back to the river.” Groups signing on to the Colorado River Delta letter included the Sierra Club, Save the Colorado, Sonoran Institute, San Diego Coastkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife, among others.
Spero columnist Kent Paterson also edits Frontera NorteSur.