From the Colorado to the Rio Grande
Strengthening partner collaboration to improve the binational Río Bravo ecosystem
Photo credit: OpenThreads on Flickr
For the past two decades, efforts to improve conditions in the binational Rio Bravo/Rio Grande ecosystem have surged and then faltered with shifting policies, politics and weather. In times of near or above-average rainfall, there is a more favorable atmosphere for dialogue on the shared ecosystem. During drought, binational tensions over water allocation dominate and dialogue about ecosystem protection is pushed aside.
A group of federal, state and NGO partners – including Environmental Defense Fund – is working to strengthen collaboration and cross-border dialogue to achieve a shared vision for sustainable protection of the binational river ecosystem, creating a durable vision and implementation program.
Dialogue and activity through this effort centers on the Lower Río Conchos below Luís León reservoir through its confluence with the Río Grande at Presidio and downstream through Big Bend National Park and the Wild and Scenic River stretch. This area is also the focus of federal efforts to reintroduce the endangered Silvery Minnow, establish an international protected area in collaboration with Mexico’s National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), and re-open a border crossing at Boquillas Canyon that was closed post 9/11.
In 2000, then-secretaries of environment for Mexico and the U.S. – Julia Carabias and Bruce Babbitt, signed a Joint Declaration to, among other things, establish a collaborative research agenda on the shared Rio Grande ecosystem through a binational and multi-jurisdictional group which came to be known as the “BREW” (Binational Rio Grande Ecosystem Working group). At that time, the mainstem stretch of Rio Grande from Fort Quitman to Amistad – also known as the Forgotten River was the focus of effort, due to the extent of invasive species establishment and habitat degradation.
From 2000 to 2005, the US and Mexico engaged in a contentious debate over delinquencies in Mexico’s delivery of water to the U.S. under the terms of the 1944 Treaty [PDF] that dictates the sharing of binational waters, particularly involving releases from the Rio Conchos to the Rio Grande. These disputes effectively shut down the collaborative effort. During this time, the Texas Center for Policy Studies and, later, Environmental Defense Fund, worked with a broad range of Mexican and U.S. partners including World Wildlife Fund, BioDesert A.C., universities, and the agriculture sector to conduct studies on Río Conchos water management system operations [PDF], agricultural use of water, the nature of deliveries under the Treaty, and unique ecosystem features such as the Cañon Peguis in the Lower Río Conchos. These papers and conference reports, even today, represent some of the most comprehensive work to date on the Río Conchos.
In 2005, Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and World Wildlife Fund forged ties with local ranchers and farmers and, with seed money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, established Texas’ first locally-driven water trust. The central mission of the Trans Pecos Water Trust is to help protect Rio Grande instream flows. Today, the Trans Pecos Water and Land Trust, as it is now known, continues to enjoy a strong local board, has leased nearly 2,000 acre feet of surface water rights and added instream use to permits for another 2,500 acre-feet, acquired the 1,100 Alamito Creek Preserve, and taken on multiple additional projects in the region. In addition, WWF, BBNP, TPWD and the TPLWT implement on-the-ground projects to eradicate invasive species in parts of the national and state parks and, for the national park, provide jobs for Mexican border communities.
As the binational crisis over Rio Grande deliveries has eased (in fact, the region has recently experienced several average to above-average water years) there are renewed efforts and stronger collaboration among NGOs and federal and state agencies on behalf of the Rio Grande. An umbrella organization – the Big Bend Conservation Collaborative [PDF] – formed recently to better organize and focus efforts. This Collaborative evolved from the work of World Wildlife Fund, Big Bend National Park, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Utah State University and Environmental Defense Fund to establish informal Science and Policy Teams that gather information and share knowledge to date on the current state of the Rio Conchos and Rio Grande below Presidio.
In December 2009, WWF organized a science session and field trip in Chihuahua, Mexico that was attended by Mexico’s National Water Commission (CONAGUA), including officials from that agency with responsibility for operating the Luís Leon Reservoir. Researchers from Utah State University who have been involved since 2000 in scientific research on geomorphology conditions in the Rio Grande through BBNP shared their data at this meeting.
BBCC partners are planning a second meeting in El Paso, Texas with International Boundary and Water Commission and CONAGUA officials, to continue and further the dialogue. Plans call for sharing data gathered since the 2009 meeting and focusing on ecological conditions in the Lower Río Conchos in an effort to better define and work toward the shared benefits of a healthier binational ecosystem.
In addition, the Senate Bill 3 process in Texas provides a mechanism for reviewing the science and making recommendations for desired instream and bay and estuary flows to maintain ecosystem functioning. The Stakeholder Committee for the Rio Grande was recently established, and they will appoint an Expert Science Team by this spring. This process may also raise the profile of instream flow needs for the river and provide additional impetus for cooperation with Mexico, and, potentially, some state resources for modeling.
Proposed work and projects
BBCC partners have identified a need to obtain funding for organizing and pursuing a coordinated vision that will strengthen this growing collaboration and bring renewed attention to the Rio Grande/Rio Conchos basin, and have compiled a list of project elements below. The strong collaborative program in the Colorado River Delta, fostered also by Enviromental Defense Fund’s expertise and presence, provides interesting parallels for the BBCC and an indication of what can be accomplished through focused effort, and the project elements below draw upon some of those developed in the evolution of the Colorado River effort.
- Organizational support: a funded position to help organize, provide communications, bring partners together, and provide travel stipends to meet, plan, and hold informational fora (including binational meetings);
- Support for preparation of an over-arching Conservation Plan focused on the two rivers and the riparian ecosystem which would include o science meetings to share results of on-going data collection and synthesize/agree upon priorities; o preparation and release of report;
- Conduct a Lessons Learned from the Colorado River delta analysis regarding the flow acquisition program there and, through this effort, fund exchanges with Bajo Rio Conchos irrigators and Mexicali District irrigators;
- Support an economic analysis of the potential benefits to the Bajo Río Conchos irrigation district of a water rights leasing program;
- Funding for local riparian/wetland restoration projects that would bolster community involvement in/awareness of/support for restoration projects in general and provide restoration-based jobs locally.
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Related blog posts:
- El Rio Bravo
- Forgotten Reach of the Rio Grande, Fort Quitman To Presidio, Texas [PDF]
*Please contact Karen Chapman for an extensive map that accompanies this study
- The Ojinaga Valley: At the Confluence of the Lower Rio Conchos and the Rio Bravo (English executive summary [PDF], full report in Spanish [PDF])
- Agricultural Irrigation Conservation Projects Analysis (English executive summary [PDF], full report in Spanish [PDF])
- Preliminary report on Rio Conchos basin [PDF]
- Binational Declaration on U.S./Mexico Water Negotiations [PDF]
- A recent analysis prepared for Environmental Defense by Humberto Lujan of Ojinaga, Chihuahua, shows how salt cedar is choking the river and invading farmlands in the lower Rio Conchos. Spanish only [PDF]
- A 2004 report by our partner BioDesert, AC (a Mexico-based conservation group) explores the feasibility of establishing a natural protected area in the Canon de Peguis. Spanish only [PDF]