This story was originally published by the Guardian as part of their two-year series, This Land is Your Land, examining the threats facing America’s public lands, with support from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and is republished by permission.
Imagine the world without its most famous rivers: Egypt without the Nile, or London without the Thames. In Las Cruces, New Mexico, residents don’t have to envision the West without the Rio Grande – it runs dry in their city almost every single year.
But this isn’t its natural state.
Isaac Melendrez, who was born near Las Cruces in 1934 and contributed to an oral history of the Rio Grande, remembered swimming in the river with his family as a child, while throngs of birds soared overhead. During the rainy season, the river’s floodwaters sounded like trains. Now?
“It’s shrunk just about as much as it can,” Melendrez said. “I don’t know what else they can take from it.”
In the past, the Rio Grande would run through Las Cruces for the irrigation season from February to October. But last year, the river didn’t flow until March, and was dry by September. In 2021, the Elephant Butte Irrigation District (Ebid), in charge of measuring and releasing water to Las Cruces from upstream dams, estimated that water levels will be so low they won’t arrive until June and it will probably be gone again at the end of July.
A finite amount of water flows through the Rio Grande every year, so when there are shortages, every city along the river is affected. Due to climate change, hotter and drier seasons are reducing the snowpack that melts to feed the Rio Grande, and rising temperatures are increasing evaporation from the reservoirs. Because of this, the river has had just seven years with a “full supply” of water in the past 20, and only two in the past decade.
“With the lessened snowpack and the depletion of water resources across the southwest, we’re just stacking problems on top of other problems.”
“With the lessened snowpack and the depletion of water resources across the southwest, we’re just stacking problems on top of other problems,” says Las Cruces city councilor Gabe Vasquez. “Every living thing that depends on having water in the desert suffers as a result.”
The Rio Grande’s flow was always variable, but drying up completely was an extraordinary event until the 1890s. When it began to dry up regularly, due to upstream agricultural development, Congress authorized a series of projects, spanning decades, to control where and when the water runs. For example, dams release carefully calculated…