The endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher relies on the Rio Grande's thirsty cottonwood forests. Photo: Scarlett Howell/USGS

Audubon in Action

More than 260 Million Gallons of Water Began Flowing Into the Parched Rio Grande This Month

A historic collaboration between Audubon New Mexico and Native American tribes should help ease dry times for local birds and people.

At one time, the Rio Grande was a river to be reckoned with, careening through three states and two countries, bringing life to cottonwood forests, fish, birds, and other wildlife.

Now, thanks to a web of human diversions and drought intensified by climate change, some stretches of the once-mighty waterway have drained to just a trickle. But starting this month, an unprecedented partnership between Audubon New Mexico and New Mexico’s Native American tribes is returning to the river and its denizens exactly what they most need: water.

Citing record-breaking heat and underwhelming rainfall during the recent monsoons, engineers from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District triggered a flow from the Abiquiú Reservoir, about an hour north of Santa Fe. More than 260 million gallons of stored water will trickle out over the next few weeks—enough to flow continuously over a 35-mile stretch of river for nearly 24 days, says Julie Weinstein, the executive director for Audubon New Mexico. She predicts that by mid-September, the water will have reached some of the Middle Rio Grande’s thirstiest habitats. That includes riparian forests where the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher nests, as well as four Important Bird Areas, which in the fall and winter sustain migrating waterfowl, including tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese.

The elaborate plan of relief was set in motion last summer, when Audubon New Mexico reached out to the Middle Rio Grande Pueblos with a proposition. The state office would secure funding for habitat restoration work on their land if the tribes would allocate water allotted to them from the San Juan–Chama River diversion project to bolster the flow of the Middle Rio Grande. Eager to help reestablish a healthy river system, the pueblos of Sandia and Isleta decided to donate their water, while two more tribes, the Cochiti and Santa Ana, agreed to the exchange. Combined with surplus water donated by The Club at Las Campanas, a Santa Fe golf club, the Abiquiú stores swelled to hundreds of millions of gallons.

An aerial view of a section of the Rio Grande that could benefit from the recent water release. Photo: Daily Overview/Satellite images 2016, DigitalGlobe, Inc.

This partnership with the pueblos marks a historic rite of passage for freshwater conservation in New Mexico. It’s the first time a non-governmental organization is releasing water to replenish the Middle Rio Grande. Like many of the rivers in New Mexico, the Rio Grande suffers from the competing interests of states, cities, and farmers—relationships that will become increasingly strained unless people learn to work together more imaginatively.

"We have to do our part to preserve and protect the river for future generations,” says Stuart Paisano, lieutenant governor of the Pueblo of Sandia. “This is one small step in trying to do that, for the betterment of not just our community, but of everyone else in this region."

Correction: Due to an editing error, the article previously stated that the release of the water began today. A smaller flow was triggered last week.

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