Plan for Middle Rio Grande released

Expanding programs such as the Bosque Ecosystem Monitoring Program

By Dave Simon

The Rio Grande is one of the world’s great rivers. Over 1,800 miles in length, the Rio Grande is the fifth-longest river in North America. More than 500 miles of the Rio Grande form the heart of New Mexico—the state’s primary drainage feature and most valuable natural and cultural resource.

On July 11 in Albuquerque, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released “A Citizen’s Report: Strengthening Our Heritage in the Middle Rio Grande,” a plan for the Middle Rio Grande — the 180-mile stretch of river between Cochití and Elephant Butte Reservoirs. Salazar commissioned the report on a previous visit to New Mexico.

Salazar had appointed a committee of New Mexicans in January to work with federal agencies on this new plan for the Middle Rio Grande, which is part of the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors program, an initiative to develop a 21st-century conservation and recreation agenda based on citizen input and strengthened partnerships among federal entities, states, tribes, local communities, and nongovernmental organizations. Salazar wanted a plan that would look beyond a narrow focus on endangered species (southwestern willow flycatcher and silvery minnow) toward a broader agenda to enhance conservation, recreation, and education efforts.

The Secretary assigned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to lead the effort, working with six citizen appointees.

Over six months, the committee held more than 20 public meetings and work sessions, took input from dozens of stakeholder organizations, and received more than 1,500 individual public comments — many of which called for aggressive action to protect, rescue and restore the ecosystem of one of the most endangered rivers in the world.

The resulting report—which focuses on the narrow “greenbelt” of the river corridor but has implications for the entire watershed—began by stating the gravity of the situation: “The MRG faces enormous challenges: a serious long-term water crisis—which will be exacerbated by climate change—affecting all natural and human communities; ecosystems under stress and in decline; and recreation/tourism and outdoor-environmental education programs that are not meeting fundamental needs nor the region’s immense potential in this area.” The committee found widespread existing efforts to address these challenges and many strong local, state, federal, tribal and private-sector programs in the areas of conservation, recreation and education.

Overall, however, the committee saw the need for decisive action and significant improvement in four key areas: Water Management (to conserve/improve water use, support in-stream flow and river restoration), Landscape-Level Conservation and Restoration (to save and maintain a network of connected public and private lands to provide wildlife habitat, open space, and cultural values), Improved Governance and Coordination among stakeholders, and Investment (to provide the necessary resources at the local, state, federal, and tribal levels).

Some of the report’s specific major recommendations include:
Restructure the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program to better coordinate conservation, recreation, and education efforts across local, state, federal, tribal, and non-governmental organizations.
Increase aggressive water conservation in conjunction with mechanisms for putting the saved water toenvironmental beneficial uses, and develop and implement collaborative, voluntary, market-based water transactionprograms, to acquire and dedicate water for environmental flows, ecosystem processes, streamside riparian and wetland habitat restoration and recreation.
Complete and link a “String of Pearls” network of conservation, recreation and education sites along the Middle Rio Grande that should include the expansion of the Rio Grande Valley State Park partnership approach to encompass the river/bosque in Sandoval, Valencia, and Socorro counties (excluding Pueblo lands and private lands) and the planning, construction, and management of a land and water Rio Grande Trail through as much of the river corridor as is appropriate and feasible.
Elevate the Middle Rio Grande as a national priority and authorize and fund a comprehensive federal Middle Rio Grande Restoration and Management Program (which should be supplemented by new sources of state and local funds) for restoration, public and private land conservation, land and water trails, non-game/ non-consumptive wildlife programs, park and recreation management, and outdoor/environmental education.
Bring outdoor/environmental education programs to 100 percent of the Middle Rio Grande’s schoolchildren and expand lifelong learning opportunities for people of all ages.

One of the report’s other central recommendations, the establishment of a new National Wildlife Refuge in the Middle Rio Grande, has come to fruition — see related story elsewhere.

The report offers some hope; that is, if it is implemented — which will require significant investments by local, state and federal government entities and enhanced collaboration among the river’s numerous stakeholders (which are often at odds).
“A Citizen’s Report: Strengthening Our Heritage in the Middle Rio Grande” is available at the project website .