Upper Rio Grande Basin Earns a "C" in First-Ever Report Card

Improvements are urgently needed to ensure people and wildlife have continued access to water resources
Nov 17, 2022 1:10 PM ET

SANTA FE, N.M. November 17, 2022 /3BL Media/ - A group of leading ecosystem scientists and local advocates today gave the Upper Rio Grande basin a “C” on its first report card, noting that the overall health of the basin is in moderate condition and warning that there is not enough water to sustain the needs of all users while also maintaining a healthy river ecosystem.

The report card – developed by Audubon Southwest, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – scores the basin’s health at 54% through a novel approach that builds on social, economic, and environmental data. The report card is designed to help local residents and policymakers better understand the health of their local waters

“As New Mexicans and communities across the West are facing unprecedented drought and water challenges—the report card is in, and the Rio Grande Basin is experiencing the impacts of climate change and systemic change,” said Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico’s First District.  “That is why the Senate must pass our Rio Grande Water Security Act and Water Data Act to empower our communities to transform water management. I am grateful to researchers at World Wildlife Fund, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Audubon Society for documenting the need for urgent action to protect our precious rivers for generations to come.”

“The Upper Rio Grande report card effort has brought important resources to our beleaguered yet beautiful river at a crucial time,” said Paul Tashjian, Director of Freshwater Conservation at Audubon Southwest. “The information gathered for the report card and associated analytical tools provide a backbone for developing meaningful resiliency strategies.”

The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo has been declared one of the ten most endangered rivers in the world. The basin suffers from limited water availability due to climate change, interstate water management issues, infrastructure, and increased water demand from a growing population.

“The Upper Rio Grande Basin has long been a connector of ecosystems and cultures,” said World Wildlife Fund Rio Grande Manager Enrique Prunes. “The river has a unique power to transcend political boundaries. Through this effort, we are bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders around a shared vision and assessing its immense value.”

“Now more than ever we must embrace a holistic approach and work with all water users in the Rio Grande system to do our best to balance the various needs along the river,” said Mike Hammam, New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. “Providing water for families and farmers, protecting unique habitat, and complying with interstate and international compact deliveries – all as the changing climate continues to increase the strain on the system.”

The report card evaluates four regions: (1) the Upper Rio Grande: Colorado, (2) Upper Rio Grande: New Mexico, (3) Middle Rio Grande, and (4) Lower Rio Grande. All regions had moderate scores. New Mexico’s Upper Rio Grande had the highest score, 57% a C+ and Lower Rio Grande had the lowest score, 41% a C-. Upper Rio Grande: Colorado and Middle Rio Grande also had C+ grades, 56% and 55% respectively.

The overall basin condition is determined by 28 indicators of health in four categories: Water Quality & Quantity, Management & Governance, Society & Culture, and Landscapes & Ecology. Landscapes & Ecology had the highest category score, 61%, a B-. The other three categories had moderate scores. Society & Culture scored 57%, a C+. Management & Governance scored 49%, a C. Water Quality & Quantity had the lowest score, 47%, a C.

“This basin health report card analyzes data to inform decision making about restoration and management across Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas,” said Alexandra Fries, Program Manager, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “Report cards distill data into a grade similar to what students receive in schools. This helps to communicate complex information in a way that broad audiences can easily understand.”

The Upper Rio Grande, flowing from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, through New Mexico, and ending in Ft. Quitman, Texas, has supported people and wildlife for thousands of years. More than 6 million people rely on its resources. Native American tribes, Pueblos, and Spanish acequias depend on the river for water, food, and shelter. The river also supports the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the three most biodiverse deserts in the world. As one of the five longest rivers in the US, and an American Heritage River and a Wild & Scenic River, the Rio Grande’s value as a critical watershed for the people and species of the Southwest region is unmatched.

To determine how best to improve basin conditions, project partners developed a scenario modeling tool, the Upper Rio Grande Futures Model. Stakeholder workshops evaluated several management options, including reducing water conveyance losses, fallowing agricultural land, reducing municipal water demand, reoperations of reservoirs, and prioritizing minimum ecological flows. Results show that a combination of these options can improve environmental flow conditions in the Rio Grande. Promising options will be further refined and evaluated to identify a portfolio of actions that contribute to improvements in basin resilience.

“The Upper Rio Grande Futures Model is a tool to move from the hypothetical towards a data-based basis for the conversations that need to take place to make progress,” said Casey Brown, Provost Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at The University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“The Rio Grande Basin is unique in its multi-state and binational nature and it makes sense that approaches to dealing with transboundary issues in the basin would be just as unique. This report provides important information for the upper and middle portion of the region and paves the way for discussion and the development of guidance and models that can be applied later along the international reach,” said Leslie Grijalva, Environmental Protection Specialist, Environmental Management Division Program Manager Rio Grande Clean Rivers Program, International Boundary and Water Commission, U.S. Section.

"At the Bureau of Reclamation, we are appreciative of the development of the URG-Futures model, which can serve as a screening tool for potential adaptations to the growing gap between water supply and demand,” said Dagmar Llewellyn, Planning Group Supervisor, Water Management Division. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Upper Rio Grande Basin Report Card reflects the collective effort of over 100 stakeholders that manage land, water, and wildlife in the basin. The report card is supported with funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Broll/photos/infographics can be found here.

To view the report card and for more information please visit: www.riograndereportcard.org

Media Contacts:

Sarah Fogel
World Wildlife Fund

Alexandra Fries
University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in nearly 100 countries for over half a century to help people and nature thrive. With the support of more than 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat the climate crisis. Visit http://www.worldwildlife.org to learn more and keep up with the latest conservation news by following @WWFNews on Twitter and signing up for our newsletter and news alerts here.

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science leads the way toward better management of Maryland’s natural resources and the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. From a network of laboratories located across the state, UMCES scientists provide sound evidence and advice to help state and national leaders manage the environment, and prepare future scientists to meet the global challenges of the 21st century. www.umces.edu.