Unleash a Desert River and Its Wisdom

Rio Grande River. Photo: Adriel Heisey.

As the global pandemic rages, I am set adrift without connection to my home anchor.

This charmed place with the monochromatic desert landscapes and auburn central river are but a distant memory. I breathe in the thirsty air and watch a pair of coyotes skulk through the urban refuge in my hometown. The geese snub the prowlers, yet disperse at the bright call of a meadowlark.

Even then, a dark veil of uncertainty washes over me — unease as to what lies ahead.

The Rio Grande, like many Western rivers, is experiencing a collision of crises threatening its future, the future of the aquatic and riparian ecosystems it supports, and the communities and cultures that are at its heart.

Like the endless murder of crows I watch congregate in the crooked branches of an elderly cottonwood, doom is near for this lifeblood of the desert Southwest.

Life exists along the Rio Grande because of the sacrifice made by this great river to nourish the environment and the 6 million people that inhabit the watershed from the crisp snowcapped mountains of Colorado to the humid and vast Gulf of Mexico.

It is now our turn to show gratitude by charting a new course for a sustainable future for this icon of the West.

The Rio Grande watershed is the fifth-largest in North America, draining 336,000 square miles, an area larger than Texas. Here, where I am transfixed on a juvenile bald eagle scanning the bosque at sunset, the riparian corridor represents only 1 percent of the landscape. However, it’s home to over 400 species of native fish, wildlife and plants, including beloved sandhill cranes, speckled Rio Grande cutthroat trout, reclusive ocelot, charismatic yellow-billed cuckoo, and the oldest and largest cottonwood forest in the world.

Ecosystem collapse is all but certain for this desert river without legal and political intervention and significant public outcry as to its value as a living river.

The Rio Grande does not have a right to its own water, and unsustainable water use is causing its flows and aquifers to disappear. Extinction threatens many of its native species, with climate change predicted to decrease available flows by an additional 25 percent to 50 percent by 2100.

I remember standing at the edge of the shimmering river, which today has only but a fleeting breath of water left to survive. In its absence, lost would be the calamity of cranes vying for safe island refuge among its waters, solace for human souls and ancient ways of being.

To add insult to injury, federal agencies have removed fundamental environmental protections for clean water, imperiled species and public participation with rollbacks of the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The legal framework that supports and protects these fragile environments, already heavily burdened communities and their life-source rivers are at risk.

We are at a moment of reckoning.

To be sure, we can continue to demand more of rivers and demolish the public health and environmental safeguards that protect the planet, its people, and its delicate ecosystems in the name of greed and false prosperity. But another more beautiful, likely more modest and more equitable alternate future is possible for both people and the environment.

An acute power shift is necessary to realize this vision requiring people to step forward and others to open space. I am not talking about politics, although the same is true in that realm as well, but essential structural shifts in our homes, our workplaces, our communities, our watersheds and our eco-regions.

My perception has always been that an ominous mass of crows looms dark. However, I’ve heard that in some native cultures, crows signify wisdom and luck. There is much wisdom left unheard and unseen that must be unleashed. If there was a time to liberate those voices, it is now. A different perspective can be magic.

This column first appeared in the New Mexican.

Jen Pelz is a river activist and lawyer working to protect and restore living rivers throughout the West. She works as the Wild Rivers Program director and Rio Grande Waterkeeper at WildEarth Guardians.