The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo (the Great River/the Wild River) earned its names centuries ago, when European-Americans discovered a waterway that rose in North America’s Rocky Mountain cordillera, flowing almost 2000 miles through hyper-arid savannas, stark canyons and scrublands, to the Gulf of Mexico.
In prehistory, it was regarded as miraculous for its habit of watering the desert; it was wild in the way that life is, at its heart, an expression of the fierce, free nature of the planet.
Today, the Rio Grande is widely recognized as a most endangered river, a river over-exploited for its water and the services that water provides to support our civilization. The river is now conceived of as an article of commerce, though the wealth it has given society underpins our ability to prosper in these deserts. Society has reciprocated the gifts of the Rio Grande, by demanding more and more of the river: that it stay in its place and deliver water on-demand.
Along with altering the structure and function of the channel, our economic uses of the river have reordered its biota:
- The big, charismatic native sturgeon, eel and redhorse are gone from the Rio Grande.
- By 1920, a suite of four little native fish had been extirpated or extincted, leaving one survivor, the notoriously endangered silvery minnow to fill an ecological niche.
- Progressively, the floodplain has become host to dense stands or non-native plants, such as Salt Cedar.
- The last whooping crane was spotted in 1998.
- The status of five or six migratory songbirds is very much in question.
- And, as evidence that the Rio Grande is truly over-allocated, the river sometime goes dry as a stone, in four discrete reaches.
With human water demands continuing to expand, in this time of increasingly unstable and unreliable climate, the Rio Grande may not be able to continue as a wild, living river, unless its citizens rise to the challenge of protecting its well-being.