Meanwhile, invasive Russian olive and tamarisk trees have moved under the canopy, all species exposed to fire. Fires in the forest were once virtually non-existent; now they routinely break out. In 2017, the Tiffany fire in southern New Mexico roared across the parched landscape, leaving more than 9,000 acres of cotton forest on the banks of a charred ruin.
Due to dikes built to restrict its flow, the Rio Grande now mostly runs through a narrow canal instead of extending wide across the landscape, which interrupts the main stem from its many side channels. It has eliminated much of the meandering veils, braids, and beef arches that are the habitat of the silvery elrite that was once present throughout the river but is now found in only 10 percent of its range.
For some, the answer to the existing problems with the Rio Grande is to restore some form of natural water flow.
“Optimizing spring runoff is a really important strategy, because organically, a whole bunch is tied to it,” said Paul Tashjian, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon Southwest. “The silver-colored electric zipper spawns below the pulse. Cottonwood seeds fly below the pulse. Neotropic migrants breed below the pulse. If it happens a month earlier, it is a misfire. It does not provide the benefits.”
One strategy is to store water in reservoirs and allow it to be released at the right ecological time – easier said than done with so little water to go around, and most of it committed to farms and ranches.
Thomas Archdeacon is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist in Albuquerque who is tasked with helping preserve the fading silvery minnow during a mega-drought. He and his colleagues placed window screens to catch silver-colored electric zipper eggs as they floated downstream. They planned to take the eggs to a federal fish hatchery where the fish are farmed. But there were no eggs the morning we visited.
Another fundamental problem is that low water flow and irrigation cause the river to dry out in the summer, resulting in large baptisms. “If 30 miles of the river dries up,” Archdeacon said, “it will kill all the fish.”
In July, Archdeacon and others will rush out to the dwindling river and catch fish stranded in basins and take them under a nearby dam, where they can survive in deeper, cooler waters for a while yet.
The rising frequency and size of forest fires is also taking a heavy toll on the Rio Grande. As we drove along the river near Santa Fe in early May, we could see giant clouds of smoke pouring out of the raging forest fires.
“After the Las Conchas fire [near Los Alamos in 2011] there were huge impacts on the Rio Grande, ”Allen said. “It was an extreme fire and it caused extreme flooding and dirt. It added an incredible amount of sediment and turbidity, and it changed the chemistry and biota. Macro-invertebrates and fish were wiped out. “
Efforts are underway in New Mexico to thin large areas of forest to reduce the risk of major wildfires and prevent further fire damage to rivers.
Martin Baca has seen the changes on his own. He was born and raised on a family ranch along the river near Bosque, New Mexico, where he breeds hay and bulls for rodeo. He shows a belt buckle the size of a bagel, which he was awarded for high-quality bulls. Normal, he said, seems to be over. “There has been less water for irrigation and a lot more wind,” he said. “You can water, and five days later it is dry. The hot wind is like a hair dryer. And there is no dew. You must have tablecloth. It helps the grass grow. But you can not get dew with that wind. “
“The climate is changing,” he said, pushing up the edge of his cowboy hat. “I did not believe it at first, but I do now.”
Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from The water tablean initiative based on the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.