Defending the Big River

by Kent Paterson

Every river searches for the sea
Every life runs its own destiny
Canyons white and wild stretches calm and mild
Cutting through the stones of history

Rio Grande runs south to Mexico
From the highway I have touched its shores
Reynosa to Santa Fe and back the other way
I’ve had my life planned by the Rio Grande
An unbroken chain snow and tears and rain
Cutting through my soul and to my veins . . . .

— Tish Hinojosa, 1992

Running south from Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs in southern New Mexico, the Rio Grande appeared a normal river as the summer kicked in. Shaded in spots by cottonwoods, it streamed past plantings of cotton, onions, corn, pecans and chile peppers. Resplendent in green, the land surrendered a monsoon smile after welcome rains. But as the river flowed south ferrying irrigation water released from the reservoirs, the human hand which has altered it became glaringly evident.

During irrigation season, after the river cuts through Sunland Park, New Mexico, its waters tumble into a canal system delivering life to the farmlands of El Paso’s Lower Valley and the neighboring Juárez Valley of Mexico. Rio Grande water also supplies about 40 percent of El Paso’s municipal water supply, according to El Paso Water (EPW), the local water utility.

Largely dry and trash-ridden through central El Paso, save for a few dirty pools here and there, the river in this stretch is a cemented body wedged between concrete canals nourishing the sprouts of agriculture and hoisting the concertina wire of immigration control.

When the water does flow, it becomes a harvester of human bodies, snagging desperate, undocumented migrants or the homeless, as the routine drownings in El Paso area canals and the river itself attest.


The 21st century river is a far cry from the vision promulgated by the old Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition and others who mounted a campaign to declare the waterway an American Heritage River, a designation approved for the Texas stretch of the river by President Clinton in 1998.

Practically forgotten now, the American Heritage River Initiative was established to lend federal guidance for economic revitalization, environmental protection and cultural preservation

Nearly a quarter century later, El Paso was the recent meeting site of the Upper Rio Grande Citizens Forum, a public information exchange established in 1999 by the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC), the federal agency responsible for overseeing and implementing US-Mexico water agreements.

At the first in-person gathering held since the COVID-19 pandemic, attendees heard presentations and comments on the epic drought gripping the region, US water deliveries to Mexico under the 1906 Convention, and the status of EPW’s clean-up of the Rio Grande following a wastewater pipeline break near the border line of West Side El Paso and Sunland Park which sent more than a billion gallons of raw sewage tumbling into the river between August 2021 and January 2022. A nauseous stench frequently greeted anyone in the contamination zone during those months.

Kicking off the Citizens Forum meeting, USIBWC Hydrologist Samantha Stifler ran through a power point that depicted U.S. deliveries of water to Mexico under the terms of the 1906 Convention, which allocates Mexico 60,000 acre-feet of water per year, unless drought decides otherwise and Mexico’s share is reduced along with those of U.S. irrigation districts. This year, Mexico will get 12,428 acre-feet, or 20.7 percent of its annual allocation. According to Stifler, the lowest Mexican allocation on record was a scant 3,365 acre-feet in 2013.

The river ran dry before El Paso Water started dumping raw sewage into it. (Photo by Rich Wright)

Because of water scarcity, Mexico has received its full annual share of 1906 water only 7 times since 2000, according to a USIBWC chart.

The amount of water entering Elephant Butte Reservoir for delivery to southern New Mexico, El Paso and the Juárez Valley is largely dependent on snow pack melt from high mountains far upstream in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. But that vital resource has greatly diminished in recent years, and as report-after-report from climate scientists indicates, it’s likely to decrease in coming years as well.

With less snowpack-derived water, folks in the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico are eagerly watching the skies during this year’s summer rainy season, or monsoon. A good monsoon not only replenishes Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs, but provides farmers with an extra water hedge apart from their irrigation allocation for the year, possibly even easing the growing pressure on groundwater pumping for irrigation.

Captivating the Citizens Forum meeting, Jason Laney of the National Weather Service in El Paso delved into climatic and weather factors influencing the monsoon. He displayed a graph that showed monsoon precipitation in El Paso reaching at or above the normal inches per year only 9 times since 2000.

Based on current projections, a cautiously optimistic Laney predicted a 53 percent chance 2022 will be a normal monsoon year and a 30 percent chance it won’t. Roll the dice. As the monsoon season crawls along amid stingy rain clouds drift and dissemble above, Laney’s latter prediction might be a good bet.

Even upstream in Albuquerque, where the monsoon kicked off early but has since largely checked out for parts unknown, what remained of the river by late July was mainly miles of mud and sand and periodic puddles of silvery minnows struggling to survive.

Then again, time is still left for the monsoon to deliver the goods, even quite possibly, pop a 2006-like event when inches of rain in a short interval wreaked havoc across the Paso del Norte. In the event EPW’S touted stormwater system improvements since 2008 will be put to the test.

Yet there is some good news of sorts for the Rio Grande/Bravo. The 1,800 mile long waterway did not make the advocacy group American Rivers’ list of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers of 2022. But a glance at the rivers that did, including Numero Uno Colorado River, only serves as a reminder of the depth and extent of the hydrological crisis jeopardizing the continent and the planet.

Water Quality of the Rio Grande

Water quality was another pressing topic broached at the El Paso meeting. In response to a question from a Citizens Forum board member, a spokesman for EPW, which recently discharged untreated wastewater into the river for more than four months near the border line of El Paso and Sunland Park, assured the meeting that the last discharge occurred on January 6, and that environmental impacts had been contained.

Gilbert Trejo, interim chief operations for EPW, said environmental monitoring and assessment was ongoing, but while some vegetation was found “stressed” and testing detected elevated levels of E-coli, no heavy metals or toxics were identified as a threat.

In the run-up to the late spring irrigation water releases into the river from the New Mexico reservoirs, 70,000 tons of potentially contaminated materials from the river bed were removed by EPW (in cooperation with other agencies), Trejo said.

“Right now, we’re not seeing a lot of damage environmentally,” Trejo asserted. “That’s what the environmental analysis is showing us.” El Paso Water, he pledged, will mitigate and restore environmental damage from the discharges that is pinpointed by further analysis along a 35-mile stretch between McNutt Drive in the Sunland Park/El Paso borderland and the Town of Clint in El Paso County’s Lower Valley.

Anticipating a fine from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, EPW will seek to direct the penalty money toward paying the costs of environmental mitigation of the impacted zone as opposed to having it go into a general fund, Trejo said.

Citizens Forum Board member Mark Calamia asked Trejo if EPW’S environmental contractors will examine impacts on the river’s microorganisms as well as “macro fauna.”

“I want to answer yes,” Trejo replied.

The August-January pollution flow stemmed from ruptures in a corroded, obsolete pipeline that EPW was in the process of replacing anyway, but the clock got the better of the utility’s work schedules.

EPW initially attempted to avoid dumping untreated wastewater into the river by diverting it into collection ponds, but soon determined the strategy was impossible without subjecting residences and businesses in a portion of El Paso’s West Side and in Sunland Park to nasty odors and overflows.

On June 9, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) regulators in Santa Fe beat their counterparts in Austin to the punch when the state agency announced it had issued Administrative Compliance Orders (ACOs) and associated fines of $1.2 million to EPW for illegally discharging an estimated 1.1 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Rio Grande at Sunland Park.

Raw sewage fills the concrete channel built as part of the Chamizal Treaty. (Photo by Rich Wright)

Contended the NMED: “Beginning August 27, 2021, El Paso Water diverted untreated sewage in a dry reach of the Rio Grande River. El Paso Water illegally discharged six to ten million gallons of raw wastewater per day into the river just upstream of Corchesne Bridge at the Doniphan Outfall. The raw wastewater travelled downstream along the New Mexico-Texas border for approximately 1.9 miles. The illegal discharge did not cease until January 10, 2022, a total of 136 days. El Paso Water never reported the unauthorized discharge to the NMED, in violation of the Water Quality Act and Water Quality Control Commission regulations.”

Warned the New Mexico state agency, “Discharges of untreated sewage typically contain disease-causing bacteria and viruses known as pathogens. Such pathogens can cause diseases like cholera, giardia, and Hepatitis A. Untreated sewage also contains harmful chemicals, like ammonia and nitrogen, that adversely impact public health and the environment…”

In a Facebook post challenging NMED’s accusations, EPW detailed the utility’s mitigating actions, namely timely incident notifications and emergency coordination with appropriate authorities, including NMED (notified by e-mail, according to EPW), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, TCEQ, IBWC, Office of Emergency Management, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Border Patrol.

In separate comments to this reporter, Trejo said he expected the new pipeline serving parts of West Side El Paso will be completed by the end of 2023, at a cost of approximately $70 million. The new structure will consist of stronger, corrosion-resistant material of the type employed in the oil and gas industry, he added.

The New Movement across the River

In El Paso’s sister city of Ciudad Juárez, meanwhile, concern over the Rio Grande is spurring perhaps the most significant wave of grassroots environmental activism in the Paso del Norte region since the 1990s and early 2000s when, among others, binational organizations such as the Rio Bravo Environmentalist Alliance, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice campaigned against toxic pollution and other threats to the watershed.

Meet Rio Bravo Defense (Defensa del Rio Bravo) and the newly-formed Broad Environmental Front of the North, FAAN in Spanish, a network of groups and activist collectives in Ciudad Juárez and the state of Chihuahua. In Mexico, the Rio Grande is known as the Rio Bravo. For the N’dee people (Apache) of the borderlands, the big river is the Rio Rojo.

“We founded this organization because of (El Paso Water’s spill,)” said Rio Bravo Defense activist Damian López. “But there are also discharges in Juarez. The discharge problem hasn’t been handled in Juarez.”

Although the recent El Paso pollution flowed past Ciudad Juárez, residents were largely kept in the dark about the problem, Lopez said.

Rio Bravo Defense, however, is now taking multiple actions against wastewater discharges into the river from sources in Ciudad Juárez.

For instance, activists have filed a legal complaint with Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection regarding wastewater contamination of the river linked to the JMAS, Ciudad Juárez’s water and sanitation utility.

On July 3, Rio Bravo Defense gathered scores of signatures in downtown Juarez to accompany a human rights complaint against the JMAS, Ciudad Juárez’s water and sanitation utility. The group then presented the complaint to the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, which in turn passed it along to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. The right to clean environment is guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution.

On another front, river pollution has reemerged as an issue in the Chihuahua State Legislature.

Lawmakers approved a July 4 resolution demanding the JMAS halt untreated wastewater discharges into the river, and requested the utility to explain to them how this will be accomplished.

Underscoring the possible impacts on an estimated 18,200 acres of farmland in the Juárez Valley, especially cotton, alfalfa and pecan crops, the legislators contended that irrigation waters laden with untreated wastewater harm the quality and quantity of agricultural production.

The next day, in a Facebook post, the JMAS informed that it had asked the elected officials to approve a $4.5 million loan so obsolete sewer mains that are contaminating the Rio Grande in the low income, northeastern area of the city can be replaced with new ones.

The money will bolster a $26.9 million financing package for Ciudad Juárez approved by the North American Development Bank (NADBank), the binational financial institution established under the old North American Free Trade Agreement to fund border environmental and infrastructure projects in the U.S. and Mexico.

According to the San Antonio-based bank, the JMAS will receive a US$11.5 million grant from NADBank’s Border Environment Infrastructure Fund (funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and, to round out the necessary funding, offer loans worth up to $15.4 million.

“The project will prevent the potential discharge of up to 22.8 million gallons per day of untreated wastewater that could impact the Rio Grande River, a binational water source,” the NADBank said in a statement.

In response to a July 14 report about the Rio Bravo pollution and planned wastewater treatment improvement project sent to Rio Bravo Defense from the Mexican section of the IBWC (CILA), the activist group questioned the efficacy of official actions as well as the public transparency about the announced financing.

“When will the project construction begin and end?” queried Rio Bravo Defense in a statement posted on its Facebook. “Which company will do it? What impact will the project have?…”

For the water defenders, business as usual is over.

Rubén Albarrán of Cafe Tacvba joins The Broad Environmental Front of the North, Ciudad Juarez 2022. (Photo by Kent Paterson)

The Past is the Present and the Present the Future

Twenty two years ago, back in 2000, about 150 people from both sides of the border and representing different sectors of binational society assembled in Ciudad Juárez for the Uniting the Basin Conference sponsored by the non-governmental Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition.

According to a 2005 report issued by the USIBWC, the conference crafted 20 recommendations (most of them ultimately unfulfilled), among them the establishment of an efficient, cross-border communications system on river matters; the creation of a “binationally funded” research institute dedicated to the basin’s resources and its inhabitants; the balancing of “economic considerations with cultural and environmental water needs in regional water planning efforts;” promoting water-efficient crops in an arid region; implementing conservation practices; and setting aside water for ecological purposes through a legal entitlement for instream flows.

Subsequent developments have tended in the opposite direction. Unlike the climate-clobbered Colorado River, which at least enjoys some ecological water flows thanks to U.S.-Mexico agreements brokered by the IBWC, no similar allowance exists for the Rio Grande/Bravo.

Driven by NAFTA trade, the Paso del Norte grew in population size and consumption patterns but lagged behind in environmental infrastructure, as the crumbling pipelines of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez recently demonstrated.

And in recent decades, the cultivation of an extremely water hungry but very profit giving crop grown mainly for foreign export, non-native pecan nuts, expanded greatly not only along the Rio Grande/Bravo corridor on both sides of the border but deep into the heart of the Chihuahuan desert as well.

In New Mexico alone, the value of the state’s prize pecan crop-most of it grown in the Mesilla Valley just upriver from El Paso- soared from a mere $4 million in 1970 to an estimated $170 million in 2019, just prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state and federal agricultural statistics.

If irrigation water is unavailable from a deprived Rio Grande/Bravo, it is simply tapped from depleting aquifers.

Dr. Gonzalo Hatch Kuri of Mexico’s National Autonomous University, author of an acclaimed book on groundwater resources in the Paso del Norte, has closely studied the hydrology of the border region and the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

He portrays the current problems with and controversies over the watershed in a bigger political, economic and environmental picture framed by a shrinking snowpack, withered rivers and reservoirs and overexploited aquifers of the U.S. Southwest, borderlands and Mexico, where citizen protests over water shortages and quality crises are fast becoming the order of the day.

“We are confronting environmental catastrophe,” Hatch flatly stated in a phone interview. Despite increased collaborations between Mexican and U.S. scholars and researchers on transboundary water issues, illustrated in part by the 2019 conferences in El Paso and Las Cruces on shared, binational aquifers sponsored by the IBWC and others, little headway has been made outside scientific circles.

Information vital for policy choices on water usage is still lacking, meaning exactly who is using how much water and for what purposes, he said.

“(Scientific researchers) haven’t been able to transcend into the political or public (spheres.)…we are opening a Pandora’s box.” For Hatch, an absence of “political will” shaped by the national security imperatives in the U.S. and Mexico as well as the privileges of private interests on both sides of the line is likely to prevent progress on elusive matters like reaching a binational agreement on transboundary aquifers, until and when catastrophic event such as the drying up of an important well interrupts water supply.

For Rio Grande Forum Board Member Mark Calamia, concerns abound about the future of the river in an era of climate change. “Just look what happened to the Colorado (River). Colorado hasn’t been in a drought like this in 1,200 years. It has implications for us. It’s getting drier…”

Cooperation with neighbors is a must, Calamia said. “I think we need to hear from the Mexican side, too. It would be something that would be a nice complement, and showing diplomacy and respect and good diplomacy to the Mexicans.”

Meantime, Rio Bravo Defense and the FAAN have a broad and ambitious agenda-popularizing water as a human right, defending the environmental integrity of rivers like the Rio Bravo and Chuviscar in Chihuahua, making environmental education a public priority, curbing toxic pollution of the river, and supporting the burgeoning movement of Mexican communities without access to running water.

The new movement opposes mines and other developments threatening precious groundwater resources, supports indigenous peoples confronting territorial encroachments and environmental assaults, denounces repressive measures like the issuance of arrest warrants against 18 Chihuahua activists battling wells they say were illegally drilled, and protests a possible new industrial park in the Anapra section of Ciudad Juárez, a place Rio Bravo Defense considers a biological corridor connected to the Franklin Mountains across the border- fencing, highways and a jumble of government entities from two nations, three states and numerous municipalities, notwithstanding.

The FAAN seeks to declare a biological corridor stretching from the Rio Bravo/Grande over to the denuded hills of Juárez and south to the denuded environs of Chihuahua City. Moreover, the activists want the 1906 and 1944 US-Mexico water agreements updated to include human rights principles.

At the same time the activists, many of whom were not born or were small children during the era of cross-border environmental activism sparked by NAFTA in the 1990s and early 2000s, have revived notions once heard in gatherings of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin Coalition and other foro that the river is an interconnected, living organism deserving protection. (Renewed) binational collaboration is essential, according to activists.

At a meeting last spring in Ciudad Juarez, FAAN members gathered for the second time to brainstorm and chart out their movement. The meeting broke down in small groups focused on specific issues like biodiversity, before reconvening for a press conference where concerns and goals were laid out.

Participating in the event was Rubén Albarrán, lead singer for the Grammy-winning band Café Tacvba, one of the pioneering groups of the rock en español genre that swept the Spanish-speaking world during the 1980s and 1990s.

A friendly man with deep and ponderous eyes, Albarrán epitomizes the spirit of the new movement. In comments to this reporter, he expressed sadness at the months-long spectacle of untreated sewage flowing into the Rio Grande. Water, he said, is among the sacred elements of life needed to exist, and people should unite to protect it. “The sacred is untouchable,” Albarrán maintained.

To be continued . . .


  1. You might think in any kind of rational world we would not be using the almost-non-existent river to grow alfalfa or cotton (the latter subsidized by the USG to ensure that it competes unfairly with cotton from poor countries)….and don’t cut down the mature pecan groves but no new ones!! AND why not at least cover the irrigation ditches? That ain’t rocket science…they do it in India and use solar panels to boot, providing a power supply for the irrigation machines…

  2. Is there an email list I can get on? I affiliate with the Permanent Forum on Binational Waters ( ) but haven’t been aware of this group. Check out our website for YouTube videos of our meetings. There is so much work to do to understand and build alliances across the border aquifers.

    Don’t worry about Peak Oil. You can’t drink oil but we’re at Peak Water now.

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