The Momentary Reprieve of Rain on the Rio Grande

Rain is good, but adapting to climate change is better.

As I crossed the Rio Grande on my way to monitor a river habitat site in Bernardo, N.M., I looked out on the lush greenery of the riparian corridor and juicy storm clouds on the horizon. It has been raining in New Mexico this summer. It started early—around the 3rd week of June. At the time of writing this, the monsoon looks strong and persistent and our muddy river is flowing well through much of the Middle Rio Grande. While the rains may not stay, this is a welcome sight in an otherwise hot, dry, and increasingly arid New Mexico.

The rains are good for birds too. In fact, I’d heard that Southwestern Willow Flycatchers are showing up near the town of Bosque. So I went to check it out. I walked out to the river through dense coyote willow, and heard a distant “fitz-bew”, the flycatcher’s distinct call. I found myself in joy with my surroundings and forgetting, at least for a moment, that our Rio Grande is in the midst of a megadrought and our water systems are stressed and in crisis.

I reflected on last week’s news: 115 degrees in Portland, Ore.; Lytton, a small town in Canada, is on fire after experiencing 120 degrees heat; heat records created across the hemisphere, matching climate predictions for decades from now. This news doesn’t seem real to me as I relish the cool weather, wet skies and beautiful river. And it’s a reminder that rain is momentary, fickle, and we need permanent solutions to ensure that we can all live in a habitable West.

I drove from that site through Veguita, where the Rio Grande’s water crisis was more apparent as I gazed upon a patchwork of dry farms. Farmers in Central New Mexico received water a month late this year and, barring a good monsoon, they will be out of water in August sometime. South of here, near Las Cruces, farmers have been promised only four inches of water per acre this year, 11% of their normal allotment of 36 inches. This is a scary time for our farmers, many who are living paycheck to paycheck. As a similar sign of our crisis, the Rio Grande in Las Cruces has experienced over 150 days of a dry river bed so far this year, the Rio Grande near Socorro is dry and in Albuquerque it is experiencing some of the lowest flows in 47 years and may go dry later this summer.

I wanted to check out one more site near Los Lunas where I saw dead young cottonwood and willow trees that line this part of the Rio Grande, victims of last year’s bone dry river bed. These trees are no longer available for nesting summer birds such as warblers, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Black Phoebes and Western Kingbirds. Today’s lush monsoon could easily take a hard turn back to drought next week.

I remember back in the 1990s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation published a series of documents discussing the potential future water budget for the Rio Grande in New Mexico. The scientists were sounding the alarm bell—there simply wasn’t enough water under a 1950s drought scenario or even under a series of “normal” years. These reports raised interest, but the recurrent El Niño winters kept delivering reliable winter snowpack and full reservoirs, leaving these prognostications as distant potential realities. Now we’re living these predictions and are scrambling to find some sort of resiliency in the midst of our long term water deficit. This moderate case of denial in New Mexico is nothing compared to our collective denial regarding climate warming. For the past two decades, the drought has compounded year over year, proving the findings and warnings of a myriad of credible climate scientists.

So where do we go from here? How do we protect birds, farmers, and one of the most important river systems in the Southwest? Audubon is actively engaged in this critical puzzle, from bringing water back to the Rio through water leasing, to restoring habitat on public and private lands, to promoting policy actions that provide water resiliency. Are you interested in helping out? If so please visit or for information on opportunities from helping to restore habitat to contacting legislators on key issues. Your voices are needed as people and birds in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico face our climate crisis and the hard reality of much less water.