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Home | Tag Archives: rio grande water

Tag Archives: rio grande water

Green in the Desert: Local Biologist Taps Rainwater to Restore River Flow, Defend Against Drought

When Mike Gaglio and his team go to the river, their intention reaches beyond simply planting trees.

Each hole dug, each cottonwood set in place, each willow planted represents a small step in the direction of a much larger vision, said Gaglio, owner of High Desert Native Plants, an El Paso-based environmental and ecological restoration company.

“The Rio Grande used to be a half-mile, to mile-wide meandering stream,” he said. “As it meandered, it deposited sediment and helped make healthy soils, and those soils contributed to all kinds of natural habitat for local species.“We’re planting trees to restore a bit of that habitat. It’s an attempt to recreate what was here before.”

This year, Gaglio’s company won a U.S. International Boundary Water Commission contract to restore habitat for two endangered species: the Southwest Willow Flycatcher and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo—birds which need a certain variety of trees and shrubs along the river if they stand any chance at all in making a comeback.

As a result of this project and others like it, High Desert planted about 7,000 native trees along the Rio Grande last year alone.

In the coming year, Gaglio expects the company to plant in the neighborhood of 15,000 trees. Ostensibly, the plantings provide habitat for the two endangered birds. Gaglio refers to the medley of trees and shrubs as a “mature riparian forest,” a flora gallery that includes coyote willow, indigo bush, sumac and currants.

In many ways, the habitat mirrors what was here before humans came and dammed and channeled the river, and such a setup does in fact support life for the endangered birds.But, as with most projects, Gaglio’s mind is on the river itself—commonly described as the Chihuahuan Desert’s lifeblood.

The Southwest Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo are “indicator species,” he said; if they are in abundance, they signal a thriving river ecosystem. And a thriving river ecosystem is precisely what Gaglio hopes to help recreate.

“Right now, the river is designed like a stormwater ditch,” he said. “It’s designed to get rid of water as fast as possible, to just take it all downstream. But all these projects I’m involved in—they’re designed to return some of that natural flow.”

Gaglio, a biologist, often says his company does “everything with conservation in mind.” The phrase encompasses the breadth of his projects, which include landscape-scale restoration, a native plant nursery that salvages cacti from destruction, and an innovative approach to water conservation that takes advantage of the surprising abundance of desert rain.

The local ecosystem’s defining characteristic is aridity, Gaglio said.

Ironically, that means much of his work revolves around water. Pay attention to the water, he says, and you can do much in the vein of land stewardship, including drought reduction, species restoration, erosion control and more.

“The way we’re currently using water in this area is just not sustainable,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of managing, and we’ve got to conserve more of the water that comes down that river.”

Overtapping our Water Source

Many local experts agree.For the most part, the area’s water comes from three sources, the Rio Grande and the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons, which are underground aquifers, said William Hargrove, director of UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management.

Hargrove and Josiah Heyman, director of UTEP’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies, received a $4.9 million grant to co-lead research on the potential for water shortages in the region’s future.

“If we want to think about the future of water here,” Hargrove said, “the number one issue is climate change.”

Warmer temperatures affect water supply in two main ways, he said: They create more water demand locally and reduce the amount of water flowing down the Rio Grande.When Spring comes early, for example, agricultural operations demand more water.

Likewise, hotter summers put greater demand on El Paso’s electric plants, which use water in the electricity generating process.More importantly, hotter temperatures mean less snowfall in the high mountains of southern Colorado, where the Rio Grande rises.

The river’s annual flow largely depends on each year’s snowmelt, and climate models predict shorter winters and less snowfall in the future, Hargrove said.“All of that adds up to less water flowing down the river and more demand,” he said.

Because of such constraints, border populations are already drawing down the groundwater from the other two sources—the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons—faster than in the past, Heyman said.

“Groundwater is complicated,” he added, “because it does recharge. But the groundwater isn’t recharging anywhere near as fast as it’s being drawn out. There are wells that we have records of that are measured over time, and the depth to the water in the wells…is going down. And you can see that not just in one place, but in many places.”

Moreover, in the case of intense drought, such as the one experienced in 2011, water sources are likely to be further diminished, placing a strain on industries and populations who depend on consistent water flows.

“If we model 10 (consecutive drought) years like 2011,” Heyman said, “it really takes the groundwater levels down fast. It doesn’t zero it out, but it shows that we really will be stressing our water-supply system when we get a big drought in the future. “And I don’t say if we get a big drought in the future; I say when we get it.”

Prolonged droughts would likely first impact local agriculture operations—such as pecan and alfalfa growers—which use about 80-85 percent of the area’s water, Heyman said.

Both Hargrove and Heyman mentioned the El Paso water utility has taken numerous sophisticated measures to help ensure residents retain reliable water access in the future, including water desalinization and purchasing water ranches in areas outside El Paso—like those near Dell City, about 100 miles away. But such investments are expensive, and local taxpayers help foot the bill.

Heyman said there is a less costly way to improve water supply. “The cheapest increment of improvement for water supply is actually conserving water,” he said. “It’s cheaper to conserve water than it is to haul it over here from Dell City.”

Rainwater Harvesting

And that’s where Gaglio’s work comes into play.

In El Paso, High Desert Native Plants is spearheading a novel approach to conserving water. The concept, as it turns out, falls right out of the sky.

“Water harvesting is all about taking the water that’s naturally available and putting it to beneficial use right where it falls,” Gaglio said.Water harvesting refers to a set of integrated landscaping methods that uses the natural flow of water as the focal point of design.

When Gaglio looks at a landscape, in other words, he imagines himself as a drop of water. He asks the question: How would I flow through this place if I were water?

“What we try to do is slow, spread and sink the water,” he said. “We want it to infiltrate the soil and to sink into the ground, so that it can be stored there and used by plants and contribute to healthy soil.”

Water harvesting could alleviate numerous ecological problems. For one, it can help offset stormwater damage to infrastructure. By taking water out of street-side gutters and curbs and sinking it into organic landscapes, less water surges into storm drains and containment ponds. This, in turn, reduces strain on water infrastructure.

The practice could also help bring down municipal water demand, Gaglio said, especially if it were adopted on a wide scale.Through a combination of shaping landscapes to retain water, planting native plant palettes and installing structural rainwater catchment systems—such as cisterns that store water running off roofs—residents can reduce the amount of water they demand from municipal sources.

“Most of the water we use here in the city is on landscapes,” Gaglio pointed out. “It takes a ton of water to maintain all those green grassy lawns.”Water-harvesting landscapes, in contrast, rely primarily on rainwater, as opposed to keeping plants on life support from municipal water sources.

Gaglio said people commonly object to the applicability of rainwater harvesting because of the area’s scant rainfall. But El Paso averages about 9 inches of rain a year. By that measure, a 1,000-square-foot roof could collect about 6,000 gallons of water in a year.

“A lot of people don’t understand that because we don’t get lot of rain here, that’s even more of a reason and more incentive to harvest water,” Gaglio said. “It’s true, we don’t get a lot. But, with a landscape of native plants—which are adapted to survive here anyway—we get just enough.”

What Our Water Futures Hold

When looking at water futures, Heyman said the region faces steep challenges, especially as temperatures warm and borderland populations demand more water. Over the course of his study, however, he said he has seen reason for hope.

“I think our water futures could be alright,” Heyman said. “I think they will take really, enormously more conservation of water, by everybody who uses water—by cities and by utilities and by farmers.”

For his part, Gaglio thinks water harvesting could play an important role in those conservation efforts. It might not solve the entire water-management puzzle, he said, but it could provide an important piece.

“I’d really like to spread the word about this,” Gaglio said. “My goal is to increase awareness of the potential for water harvesting at all scales. “I want water harvesting to go viral.”

***Editor’s Note: Green in the Desert is a new column exploring sustainability and conservation efforts in the El Paso/Juarez area.  Previous Columns can be read HERE.

Writer Chilton Tippin is project manager and communications coordinator for Wondor Eco:Nomics. He likes to write, bike, ski, climb and explore. In 2015, he walked across America.

Texas Gets Boost in New Mexico Water Fight

If New Mexico wasn’t already sweating in its longstanding tug-of-war with Texas over water in the Rio Grande, this might be the summer it starts.

More than three years after Texas filed a complaint in the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexican farmers were slurping up too much water along the river — illegally curbing the flow downstream into Texas — the justices appear likely to take up the challenge.

That’s after Gregory Grimsal, a court-appointed special master, issued a draft report recommending that the court deny New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the complaint, a major development in the high-stakes dispute.

“This is a big victory for the state of Texas,” said Russell Johnson, a water rights lawyer who is not involved in the case. “The special master has in essence swept aside the impediments to Texas pursuing a claim.”

If Texas ultimately prevails, it could receive more than just extra water. New Mexico could be forced to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, experts say.

Like most interstate water skirmishes, this one is complicated and has deep historical roots. Grimsal’s report, currently in draft form, spans 273 pages.

Here are five things you should know about the battle.

1. The Rio Grande holds some of the most studied and squabbled-over waters in North America. And it’s drying up.

The river is lifeblood for folks in three U.S. states and Mexico. It’s an international border. It’s ravaged by drought. The river begins about 12,000 feet above sea level in Colorado and flows southeast after cutting through New Mexico. It forms the Texas-Mexico border between Chihuahua State and El Paso, where it flows through a concrete channel.

Before reaching Texas, the Rio Grande collects at New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir, which is currently just 13 percent full.

Of the American West’s four iconic river basins, the Rio Grande is “facing the largest climate-change water-supply deficits,” according to a December 2015 report in the journal Ecological Applications.

2. The three-state Rio Grande Compact prevents states from claiming more than their fair share of the water. Except when it doesn’t. 

In the 1910 Rio Grande Project, the federal government established an irrigation system aimed at helping agriculture and industry in the states the river flows through. But that project, which also upheld a 1906 treaty that promises Mexico 60,000 acre-feet of water annually, didn’t specifically address state-by-state allocation. Historically, Texas has received 43 percent of the water, with New Mexico getting 57 percent. waterQt

Congress approved the Rio Grande Compact in 1938, which determined how much water folks in Texas — the most downstream state — should get before those upstream sucked it up.

Or so Texas argues.

Now, the states are fighting over whether the compact actually requires New Mexico to cede a certain amount of water to Texas.

3. Both states’ arguments have quirks.

Texas claims New Mexico is siphoning off more water than the compact allows by drawing too much from the river itself and pumping too much groundwater from wells nearby.

The groundwater argument “is probably what makes New Mexico go batshit crazy,” said Johnson, the water rights attorney.

That’s because Texas law does not recognize the nexus between groundwater and surface water — that over-pumping can lower river levels. Since New Mexico’s law does make the connection, however, Texas argues that it has the responsibility to ensure its wells are not curbing the river’s flow.

New Mexico points out that the compact does not explicitly state that it must deliver 43 percent of water to the state line. Rather, the agreement aims only to ensure enough water flows into the Elephant Butte Reservoir and is properly stored, the state claims. Previous agreements, in fact, had split the water between the two states.

That line of defense may be “ignoring reality,” Johnson said. “That seems to fly in the face of what the compact was intended to do — apportion the water between the states.”

4. This time, the feds are siding with Texas

Despite Texas’ often-testy relationship with the federal government, the Obama administration actually supports the state’s position here.

In 2014, the U.S. solicitor general filed a motion to intervene on the Lone Star State’s side, arguing that the 43 percent figure of water New Mexico must send into Texas was “frozen” by the time the compact took effect.

The federal government also believes it has a stake in the outcome because of its international duties to provide Rio Grande water to Mexico, as detailed in the 1906 treaty.

But the federal government might not get the chance to make those arguments before the justices. That’s because Grimsal, the special master, recommended that the court dismiss the federal motion “to the extent that it fails to state a claim” under the compact.

New Mexico officials have focused on that partial victory in their public statements.

“We applaud the Special Master’s suggestion to limit the claims of the United States, and we will continue to work diligently in protecting the interests of all New Mexicans and our water,” Attorney General Hector Balderas, a Democrat, said in a statement this week.

5. Resolving this case could still take years and plenty of taxpayer money.

It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will decide whether to accept the case. And if the challenge moves forward, that will take some time.

Though Grimsal’s report was filled with plenty of facts for the justices to evaluate, his job could be just beginning. If the case continues, he would oversee a full-fledged trial — complete with extensive discovery — before the justices ever heard oral arguments.

Together, the states and federal government have already been charged nearly $400,000 for Grimsal’s services, according to court documents. That tab will likely grow.

Meanwhile, the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has spent nearly $116,000 litigating the case, its records show.

Paxton declined to comment on the case.

A spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said that agency agrees with Grimsal’s recommendation. “We believe we have a strong case and the draft opinion validates the need to litigate Texas’ concerns,” Terry Clawson said in an email.

Each party has until Aug. 1 to comment on the report. Grimsal can still make changes before submitting his final recommendations.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

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