Binational summit on health of the Rio Grande

A gathering of this caliber and with such acute attention on the river hadn’t occurred since a meeting at Sul Ross State University over a decade ago, in 2008.

Experts gather to discuss goals for the future of the Rio Grande / Rio Bravo.

Key players in Rio Grande conservation from Mexico and the United States congregated on Friday at the USO Building in Marfa. The binational coalition of scientists, academics, environmental activists and government employees was a rare sight. A gathering of this caliber and with such acute attention on the river hadn’t occurred since a meeting at Sul Ross State University over a decade ago, in 2008.

The collaborative meeting occurred one day after the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Water Symposium in Marfa, where experts and the general public were invited to discuss the river, environmental flows, groundwater and improving the health of the river. Organizations like Rio Grande Joint Venture, The Nature Conservancy, Pronatura Noreste, national parks on both sides of the border, and many others sent representatives to advocate for their organization’s perspectives on the river.

JD Newsom, the Executive Director of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, which hosted the event, said that in recent history, river health “has declined significantly, and a lot of that has to do with an increased number of reservoirs, increased pressure with climate change and increased pressure on farmers in Mexico using more water,” to name a few factors.

Millions of people rely on the Rio Grande, called the Río Bravo in Mexico, for drinking water and for irrigation of agriculture; the river sustains food, water and livelihoods in both the US and Mexico. Beyond the economic impact, the river is also home to cultural artifacts, recreation, and complex ecosystems of flora and fauna. As the river dwindles, all of these manmade and natural sectors suffer.

Last Friday’s summit reignited discussions about how these neighboring countries and various organizations could collaborate to protect and conserve the river and all its dependents. Attendees this year re-examined a resolution passed at the 2008 Sul Ross meeting, where the organizations in attendance first acknowledged basic truths about the river, and then laid out what they “envisioned” for the river.

The ‘08 resolution said that human-focused river management and climate change were putting the ecosystem at risk and that non-native plants were bottlenecking the river by narrowing its channel of flow, exacerbating floods. The previous group had envisioned, and established in a resolution, a wider river, unchoked by non-native plants, and a river with bridges, not walls. The document aspired for change, but by 2019, there were few victories.

This year’s group noted there had been some success in fighting off non-native river cane and saltcedar that dominate the river’s banks. The environmental flow, essentially the amount of water it takes for the river and ecosystem to be healthy, has been stagnant, showing no signs of improvement in the past decade. As for “bridges, not walls,” both the Obama and Trump administrations added more miles to the physical border wall. 

Attendees did find a silver lining though––acknowledging that the wall’s expansion has elevated the conversation to a national platform. As long as everyone is talking about it, organizations have more room to explain its dire environmental impacts–increased flood risks, trapping wildlife from accessing vital water and preventing recreation that otherwise could bring more awareness to the river and its issues.

One of the greatest victories since 2008 has been the improved science, which Ryan Smith from The Nature Conservancy said is better than ever. Comprehensive measurements of the river’s environmental flow were not as readily available in 2008. Since then, data has exploded.

Stakeholders are sharing their information, and more data has been collected, like how tributaries are sending water into the river and studies about the aquifers and groundwater in the Rio Grande Basin. The National Parks on both sides of the river in Big Bend have tested and proven various methods for removing non-native plants since 2008 and have made progress by sharing their experiences.

The summit attendees pressed forward, and began drafting a new resolution, which they hope to complete together once more key parties have weighed in. It began with a strong mission statement, reading, “The citizens of all nations care for the Rio Grande/Bravo Basin, from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, by enhancing the landscape to sustain flowing and healthy rivers and aquifers for the benefit of nature, healthy communities and sustainable economies. 

“We recognize the long term collaboration and significant work and input from partners throughout the Rio Grande Basin, and we reaffirm the 2008 vision and goals document.

“In 2019, we agreed to revise a vision statement that guides our work into the future and includes the growing interest from citizens throughout the Basin, focusing on a need to connect the people and river.”

This year’s group vowed to expand the reach of the resolution. Instead of covering just a segment of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region, the new resolution will encompass all of the river, its tributaries and the groundwater of the Rio Grande Basin.

Because of the expansion of research, it has become clear why the 2019 resolution might expand to cover groundwater. According to a study on the subject, “Within the last twenty years, spring inputs often exceed surface water contributions” in the Rio Grande. The river’s flow of water isn’t only from snow melting out of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, or from rainy monsoons along the river; water coming out of the ground is significantly contributing to the river’s flow. 

Following the mission statement, the groups on Friday chose to implement benchmarks that measure successes and failures, hoping that it would push organizations to meet the ideals the new resolutions sets forth, rather than hold great aspirations with little action behind them.

Although the meeting centered on the collaboration of two nationalities, there hasn’t been an official treaty between the U.S. and Mexico about the river’s water since the 1940s. However, Newsom said that isn’t the focus, “We think there’s an approach at more of a grassroots level of informal agreements between conservation organizations and local communities that can fill in the gaps and provide impact that cannot be accomplished at the federal level for a lot of different reasons.”

 At the binational meeting, the free flow of the Rio Grande and the free flow of information were hand in hand. When gathered stakeholders gained a fuller picture of how the river is behaving, they could work together to implement their own management techniques accordingly.