The sun is bright overhead as Beau Temple and Joseph Lobato snowshoe over the pristine pass above Creede, Colorado, in late March. The pair, both civil engineering technicians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have been measuring the snowpack at the headwaters of the Rio Grande for more than a decade.
“Definitely, we’ve gotten less snow every year since we first started,” said Temple, who along with Lobato works for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Rio Grande is New Mexico’s great waterway: a metropolitan, agricultural, environmental, recreational, spiritual and cultural resource that is under threat from warming temperatures, seasonal wildfires and increased demand.
“The river has its right to exist,” said Cisco Guevara, a 51-year veteran of the Taos rafting community and a parciante (irrigator) of the Acequia Madre del Rio Chiquito. “We don’t have the right just because we’re here to dry up the river at the expense of everything else.”
As a photojournalist, I was driven to document the impact of climate change on the Rio Grande river as a whole — and not just a few piecemeal parts of it. Setting out at its headwaters, I began by tracing the flow of the river — all 470 miles of it through New Mexico. I camped beside it, fell into it, rafted in it, hiked and drove along it — all the while talking to and taking photos of the people who rely on it for sustenance and pleasure.
Along the way, I learned about the challenges of warming temperatures, wildfires and the complex politics of water rights and management so unique to New Mexico.
High temperatures not only quicken the melting of the snowpack — they also dehydrate what remains of the river. Hydrologists predict that the increased temperatures — which have hit record highs in recent years — will result in an estimated one-third reduction in water levels by the end of the century, according to the 2013 Upper Rio Grande Impact Assessment by the Bureau of Reclamation.
“Our biggest reservoir has always been the snowpack on mountains,” said Dagmar Llewellyn, the Bureau’s supervisor of climate-change planning programs for the region. “If our precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, then the water flows downstream rather than being stored.”
Wildfires like the 2022 Hermit’s Peak/Calf Canyon fire create yet another “punch in the gut” to the health of the river, according to Phoebe Suina, owner and president of High Water Mark, an environmental consulting company in Bernalillo.
“I look up to the headwaters and I don’t see the hydrological processes of snow melting in a slow fashion,” said Suina, a hydrologist who is from the Cochiti and San Felipe Pueblos. With the mountains now stripped of trees and vegetation, the land is less able to retain water and slow the spring runoff. “We don’t have the evergreens at the headwaters,” Suina observed.
That was the case in April, when the melting snowpack caused record washouts along the Jemez River in Sandoval County.
Water rights — which are complex, wherever you go — are particularly byzantine in New Mexico, where many different water management cultures hold sway. In order to receive federal funding for water infrastructure, New Mexico in 1907 adopted the doctrine of prior appropriation, a first come, first serve system that allows senior water users to curtail the rights of junior users in times of shortage. But the system has never been fully implemented in the state, and numerous water districts — including the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and Elephant Butte Irrigation District — have mostly done away with prior appropriation. The acequias, for their part, have kept their repartimiento traditions, based on sharing water fairly and equitably.
The most important thing I heard — one that river users repeat over and over again — is that the river is irreplaceable. There are no easy solutions to the water crisis — only hard but necessary work ahead.
“The river is a living entity,” Guevara said. “It has tremendous economic value, tremendous recreation value, tremendous wildlife value, and tremendous spiritual value. Water is life. Agua es vida.”
Joseph Lobato, a civil engineering technician with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, snowshoes through an aspen forest at the Rio Grande headwaters near Creede, Colorado. He is carrying a hollow pole used to measure snow depth, weight and density.
A steady flow of end-of-season water rushes through the Azotea Tunnel, built in the 1960s as part of the San Juan-Chama project to bring water from the Colorado River into the overallocated Rio Grande. The majority of water consumed by the city of Albuquerque comes from this one project — 26 miles of connected tunnels that pass through the Continental Divide and bring water from Colorado River tributaries. This diversion also supplies water to Santa Fe, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and other northern New Mexico communities.
Matthew Martinez, a civil engineering technician with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, records the daily flow of water through the Azotea Tunnel, using a specialized device to measure water flow by cubic feet per second. As he is recording, about 37 cubic feet per second is flowing through. At its peak earlier in the summer, the recorded flow was about 950 cubic feet per second.
Esra Gilbert, 17, from Sweden, pulls in a carp from the Rio Chama — a major tributary of the Rio Grande — below Heron Lake, near Los Ojos. His guide is Wes Dyer, of The Reel Life in Santa Fe. They’re enjoying a hot day at the confluence of the Rio Chama and the outflow from Heron Lake, which amplifies the river with water diverted from the Colorado River. The dark water is the Rio Chama; the lighter-colored water is from the Colorado.
Cisco Guevara, the owner of Los Rios River Runners in Peñasco, is a parciante (irrigator) on the Acequia Madre del Rio Chiquito. He has been in the rafting business for 51 years, and has a deep connection to the river. “It means everything to me. It’s my life, what I’ve dedicated all my efforts to. It’s the place that I worship at; it’s everything.”
David Gilman, a teacher in Taos and summer river guide with Los Rios River Runners, navigates his raft through a stretch of the Racecourse, a section of rapids below the community of Pilar. Gilman, who has been guiding on the Rio Grande for more than a decade, emphasizes “the great honor and joy of taking people down rivers,” which can help people “from a fast-paced, different type of lifestyle really connect with essential elements of life.”
Cerro Pedernal, left, the dramatic mesa made famous in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, overlooks Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake is a major repository for Middle Rio Grande communities and also a popular recreation site in northern New Mexico.
The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority dam directs water from the Rio Grande into a diversion station that provides water to both the city and county.
A dragonfly rests on a rock at the nutrient-rich outflow of the utility’s Southside Wastewater Reclamation Plant, where the majority of water diverted from the Rio Grande is returned to the river after it has made its way through the metropolitan area’s system. The utility authority, the largest metropolitan user of Rio Grande water, uses about 115,000 acre-feet of water per year (roughly twice the volume of Cochiti Lake) before treating and returning much of it to the river downstream.
Phoebe Suina, a tribal member of Cochiti and San Felipe Pueblos and the owner/president of High Water Mark, an environmental consulting company, stands in the bosque near the Rio Grande in north Albuquerque. As a hydrologist working with many New Mexico communities, Suina advocates for a balanced approach to manage the river for future generations and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Stephanie Russo Baca, the chair of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and a Los Lunas farmer, stands at her headgate on the New Belen Ditch where she takes delivery of surface water. Baca, a water lawyer by day at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center, raises pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock on her farm.
The Elephant Butte reservoir and dam in southern New Mexico marks the point where water from the upper and middle Rio Grande is delivered to Texas and the Mesilla Valley. A popular recreation spot, the reservoir has seen striking decreases in water levels — last year falling to 3.8 percent of capacity, exposing boat ramps and stretches of lake bed.
A flooded pecan orchard at Dixie Ranch in the Mesilla Valley uses sophisticated monitoring via soil sensors, apps and drones to improve the efficiency of water delivery for one of the most water-intensive crops. “In the desert, water is the limiting resource,” says Greg Daviet, the co-manager and fourth-generation member of his family to run the farm. Like many farms in the valley, Dixie Ranch employs flood irrigation to deliver water to pecan trees and the shallow aquifer beneath them.
The final stretch of the Rio Grande in New Mexico wends past Sunland Park before heading into El Paso.
CORRECTION: The story incorrectly stated that all the water used by Albuquerque comes from the Azotea Tunnel. In fact, all the surface water comes from this source, representing 70 percent of the water consumed by Albuquerque and Bernalillo County.