With its multiple dams, flood-control mechanisms and crop-irrigating structures, the Rio Grande has provided residents of Colorado, New Mexico and Texas with a reliable source of freshwater for nearly a century. And for almost as long, farmers, municipalities and conservationists have tussled over who has the right to use it. Now a new player has entered the disputes, one that could raise national awareness of the conflicts draining the Rio Grande--the federal government. Department of the Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton has proposed an $11-million congressional initiative to improve Southwest water management, measurement, storage and delivery and is leading a series of regional water conferences. If the initiative passes, it would become the first federal funding of its kind for the region and the river.
The fifth-longest river in North America, the Rio Grande begins in Colorado and winds 1,900 miles through New Mexico, Texas and Mexico--bisecting the northern half of the ecologically rich Chihuahuan Desert--before emptying in the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately 10 million people live along the Rio Grande's banks, and no single state or country has management authority or responsibility for the health of the river. Currently more than 80 percent of the Rio Grande's southern flows are diverted for agriculture, says agricultural engineer J. Phillip King of New Mexico State University. Historically, in fact, undiverted water was considered wasted.
This article was originally published with the title Restoring the Rio.