CANOEING A RIVER with ecology-minded people changes the view. Where many boaters see hazards in sandbars and downed trees with their knotted roots scrubbed bare and aimed skyward, Casey Ish recognizes a “juicy habitat” for aquatic life. As the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District water resources specialist looks downstream from a boat launch in Corrales, he notes how much new habitat was added just last year. “It doesn’t look like the Middle Río Grande channel,” he says.

The last century of human intervention transformed the Río Grande to its peril and, as we are slowly beginning to understand, perhaps our own. After a wilder and uneven run over the last couple of summers, the bend ahead resembles an older version of this ancient river, when it roamed its floodplain instead of hewing to a single tightly bound channel.

As our group paddles downstream in early May, everyone admires galleries of towering mature cottonwoods. But Paul Tashjian, director of freshwater conservation for Audubon Southwest, celebrates the young ones with bright green branches emerging over willow thickets. Cottonwoods rely on flood-stage rivers, which overflow their banks with snowmelt in the spring, to sprout roots that burrow through the fresh mud. When the Río Grande was channelized and dammed in places like Cochiti and Abiquiú, those floods ended and so did all the cottonwood seedlings. When the bosque’s trees die off, no new trees exist to replace them.

New Mexico's waterways have drawn people and supported plant and animal life for centuries. Illustration by James Weston Lewis.

In some places in this river corridor just north of Albuquerque, a few have sprouted. “Something’s working here,” Tashjian declares as he steers the canoe into the belly of the current. “But it’s still on the edge.”

The question at every newly deposited sandbar is whether more will take root. It could, however, just as easily be applied to New Mexico’s existential water issues.

The Río Grande, which supplies water for six million people and nearly 1,900 miles of habitat in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, has been asked for centuries to meet the needs of farmers, towns, and industries, while still trying to support wildlife and plants. Its waters drew Pueblo people for centuries and make life as we know it in this high desert possible. But the river, some of its wildlife, and even the habitats along it, like the bosque, are struggling to adapt to growing demands and changing climate.

New Mexico’s waterways, from this longest river to the tiny braided alpine streams and seeps that fill wetlands, are strained under a hotter, drier climate, and now face threats from a decision issued by the country’s highest court. The path forward, some say, lies in recognizing how everyone benefits from a healthier river and the importance of water conservation in the age of climate change.

Paddlers, boaters, and anglers enjoy the benefits of healthy waterways. Photograph by Jen Judge.

BANK SWALLOWS skitter over the Río Grande as we steer toward side channels where water returns from various uses. Up one, the muddy river swirls into the city of Bernalillo’s darker returning wastewater. Water slows in the channel, which houses a family of geese—goslings tottering along after squawking adults—and a beaver that has recently pruned the willows along the bank to build a new lodge.

Functionally, this channel works like an outfall, a canal that returns overflow water or storm runoff from farms. Thanks to a program that pays farmers to skip planting for a season, those channels also sometimes carry water farmers might have previously used for alfalfa to keep the river wet.

Farther downstream, we pull the canoes up to an island, tie them off, and wander ashore. A shallow inlet of still water cuts between the gravel bars and shoulders of sand. In this tiny pool, we’re hoping to catch a glimpse of the endangered Río Grande silvery minnow. Eggs spawned in the river drift into the shallows like this one, where they hatch, and the young linger until they grow big enough to swim the main channel.

A lookout over the Río Chama. Photograph by Tira Howard.

The tiny flickers of newborn silvery minnows, not much thicker than a sewing needle and half as long, are nearly translucent, best spotted by the shadows they cast. Minnows once populated the length of the Río Grande and Pecos River, but now only occupy the Middle Río, about 7 percent of their historic habitat. Dams, diversions, dewatering the river, and channelization all contributed to their decline. When Río Grande silvery minnows were listed as endangered in 1994, farmers worried they’d lose water from their fields for a fish no bigger than a finger and mostly appreciated as bait.

“In the past, it’s always been fish versus farmer,” Tashjian says. “Now we say fish and farmer.” A novel ecosystem has arisen, a new way of being for wildlife and plants along the Río Grande, where agriculture blends into bird habitat and acequias supply fish as well as fields, he contends. Dedicated flows for fish seem to have helped the river begin to resemble its old self, just on a smaller scale. Work underway in a Bureau of Reclamation study intends to pin some numbers to the natural system’s needs: How much, when, and for how long do the minnows need water to survive? And what about the cottonwood seedlings?

By a puddle and a few shin-high cottonwoods, Ish and Tashjian talk about trying to help people see how these systems work together. Where farmers leave a little more water in the river, they often notice easier flows through irrigation ditches. At the very least, there’s a practical impossibility of moving water, whether to another farm or for the legal obligations to Texas, downstream in a dry riverbed. It just soaks into the sand.

Aerial view of the Río Grande. Photograph by NMTD.

Fish and farms, of course, aren’t the only uses for that water: Boaters, anglers, and swimmers want a share too. The outdoor recreation industry could prove to be an economic driver for the state’s future—already, it’s credited with creating about 28,000 jobs and providing $1.1 billion in income. In places like the Río Chama, water managers attempt to grant boaters’ wishes to float through those vanilla- and peach-colored canyons in summer months, and early research suggests that water distribution might even be good for the river ecosystems.

But securing those flows isn’t easy. Corey Spoores, who runs kayaking and paddleboarding trips with Mountain, Stream, and Trail Adventures, has led wildly popular river trips during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, making a significant share of his business’s annual income over those nine days. But last fall, the river was too low to keep a kayak off the rocks while water sat in Cochiti Reservoir. Complicated water laws barred it from being released. With the current infrastructure, boaters along the Middle Río often must haul their crafts up rough banks, pull out of the water under bridges, and carry boats more than a quarter mile to vehicles.

Everything works better with higher flows. The trouble is, we’re all being asked to work with less, facing a hotter, drier future in which New Mexico’s rivers are expected to flow with 25 percent less water. “The water crisis is a real deal,” Tashjian says.

This winter saw snowpack at or above the 20-year median in much of the Río Grande’s headwaters. That sounds like good news. This spring, however, Tashjian watched that primary water source for the Río plummet from 120 percent to just 60 percent of average over the course of a week.

In warmer weather, the air and every plant along the way absorb more water. In ongoing drought, everything gets a little thirstier.

“We lost all that snow,” he says. “It’s not in the river. That’s a harder drop than I’ve ever seen.” Climate change is no longer a theoretical issue for computer models to predict, he adds: “We’re living it.”

The San Juan River below Navajo Dam holds wonders. Photograph by Jen Judge.

I SWAP INTO A CANOE WITH RIN TARA, a staff attorney with the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, which researches environmental issues in the Southwest. I want to talk about the latest problem added to the pile for New Mexico, which concerns quality, not quantity. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Clean Water Act only applies to waters that flow continuously and year-round. The ruling canceled pollution enforcement for 96 percent of New Mexico’s waterways, including water sources for 75 percent of the pueblos.

As a result, American Rivers, a river health advocacy nonprofit, placed every New Mexico river—yes, every one—on its list of most-threatened waterways in the country. “Where federal law won’t do the job, the state and tribes have to fill in the cracks,” Tara says. “The state is moving as fast as they can—it just takes time.”

We work our way to where the river braids into channels, requiring some guesswork on which will hold enough water to keep the canoes afloat, even during one of the highest days of spring runoff flows. Twice, we must step out and carry or tow the canoes through shallow strips of water along the bank, willows swatting as we push past.

Sandstone benches on the southwest end of Abiquiú Lake. Photograph by Jen Judge.

Since 2021, the Río Grande’s water flow has been dictated more by snowmelt and rainfall than regulated by the dams upstream. That’s because El Vado Dam, the upstream reservoir tasked with regulating flows for the Middle Río (from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte), has been drained for dam repairs—a job that’s behind schedule, over budget, and presenting new and baffling engineering problems. It’s been a little painful, Ish concedes, but they’ve learned a lot.

Río Grande farmers already have a history of “shortage sharing,” which means everyone takes a little less when water is low, often by going longer between watering. At times, only the pueblos, which have what are deemed “prior and paramount” claims to the river, see irrigation ditches filled, but even those sometimes run thin.

“Everyone feels like they suffer equally,” says Adrian Oglesby, who leads the Utton Center. “Shortage-sharing agreements aren’t miraculous tools that make problems go away. They just help keep us from fighting.”

Exiting the river requires hefting boats up a steep bank and plopping them next to a few elm trees to wait for Tashjian and Ish to fetch their trucks. Great and cattle egrets peruse the shallows, looking for a late lunch. Over the course of our eight-mile trip, Tucker Davidson, senior water associate with Audubon Southwest, has tallied 49 species and so many egrets that when he adds the report to eBird (an online database for birders and scientists), it flags that number as unlikely. He’s also been the one to spot softshell turtles sunning on the banks.

Celebrate 100 years of the Gila Wilderness with a headwaters hike. Photograph by Jay Hemphill.

New Mexicans value rivers as a place for this wildlife and for these unique experiences, says Anjali Bean, a senior policy advisor on rivers for Western Resource Advocates. People value rivers as more than a route to move water from one user to the next, and policies suggest some lawmakers get it. Take the overwhelming majority who voted in 2005 to create the Strategic Water Reserve, a statewide program to buy, lease, or accept donated water rights for rivers. Historically, the water rights system allocates every ounce, but doesn’t dedicate any water to keeping the river, a river. The program seeks to address a lapse that’s allowed some waterways to be drained dry. But the Strategic Water Reserve has struggled to secure long-term funding and faced administrative burdens that make it easier for water rights owners to sell to the oil and gas industry or cannabis growers than to this state-run program.

“The challenges that we have are growing,” Bean says. “There are a lot of tools that can exist and partnerships that can be built among all kinds of water users that can allow for these multibenefit opportunities, but only if we understand the science and only if we have adequate funding and capacity to support those tools.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has also been pushing for a “strategic water supply” that looks to desalinate deep aquifers for an additional water source, but environmental groups have questions about the salty byproducts and economic costs of that approach. The state is also crawling through long-range planning, which will be crucial to heading off crises.

“I often feel like we’re in a triage situation,” says Debra Hill, Río Grande Basin recovery program supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Every spring, the agency’s staff spends days out on the river, seining minnow eggs out of the water to support a captive breeding program. Later in the summer, they net the fish themselves out of puddles as reaches of the river inevitably dry. She’d like to get to a more thoughtful planning stage but knows that requires a lot of work.

“It’s going to take a paradigm shift in how we think about and prioritize the river as a whole,” she says. “It’s going to take people caring about the river as a whole in order for us to decide, as a society, that it’s worth us keeping.”

The future must be one in which all users collaborate, cooperate, and see themselves as working for the same ends. Refusing to try to make one of the components work, whether that’s legal obligations, flows for the river and its fish, or farms, endangers the whole system. Or perhaps better said, everyone benefits when one does. It’s a rising tide, and we’re all in boats.

Read more: Drink in these facts about New Mexico’s water.


Drink in these facts about New Mexico’s water.

1,896 miles
Length of the Río Grande from the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas

108,014 miles
Total length of New Mexico’s rivers, including the East Fork Jemez, Gila, and Pecos rivers

Number of people in two countries who rely on the Río Grande

Average rainfall to reach the southern desert and Río Grande and San Juan valleys

Decline in streamflows and groundwater recharge in New Mexico expected in the next 50 years

Decline in annual snowpack observed in the Río Grande headwaters since 1960

Average rainfall in the higher elevations

Amount of Río Grande water used for irrigation in the U.S. and Mexico

Number of fish species in New Mexico considered threatened or endangered

Number of New Mexico lakes and reservoirs

Acres of wetlands in New Mexico