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String of Pearls on the Rio Grande

String of Pearls on the Rio Grande

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Published by jimhtolbert434
Mike Landis of the Bureau of Reclamation explains creating a wetlands at Sunland Park.
Mike Landis of the Bureau of Reclamation explains creating a wetlands at Sunland Park.

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Published by: jimhtolbert434 on Nov 14, 2012
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12/04/2012

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AWRA 2012 SUMMER SPECIALTY CONFERENCERiparian Ecosystems IV: Advancing Science, Economics and PolicyDenver, ColoradoJune 27 29, 2012 Copyright © 2012 AWRA
____________________________________________________________________________________________________
SUSTAINABLE RIPARIAN RESTORATION – “STRING OF PEARLS” ON THE RIO GRANDE
Michael E. Landis
*
 
Abstract
From Elephant Butte Dam down to El Paso the Rio Grande is operated by the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) as part of the Rio Grande Project. The waters are delivered exclusively for agricultural purposes, and the river is shut off at the end of each irrigation season. The river channel, maintained by the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), hasbeen straightened and emplaced between levees. The impact of these engineering measures has been devastating. The RioGrande has been transformed from a free flowing river to a highly engineered plumbing system resulting in a desert rivereffectively denuded of its riparian character. The American Rivers group has listed the Rio Grande as one of the ten mostendangered rivers in the United States for 2003.Entities currently working to address this situation include the International Boundary and Water Commission, the Pasodel Norte Watershed Council, the Bureau of Reclamation, Irrigation Districts and various NGO’s. One tactic that showsgreat potential is the “string-of-pearls” approach, where specific sites are chosen for riparian restoration. Rather thanattempting to “green” the entire river, selected areas will be developed producing a sequence of green spots, much like astring of pearls.One potential site holds great promise for implementing this strategy. The City of Sunland Park, New Mexico isconsidering utilizing its treated sewage effluent to create a wetlands park along the Rio Grande. Currently, their effluent isdischarged directly to the river. A park could provide multiple benefits to the City including landscape enhancement,wastewater polishing, and the creation of an education site for viewing nature. This new wetlands park would also provideone small green “pearl” on a riparian belt that historically was covered with wetlands. The goal is to spread this idea to othercommunities along the Rio Grande.The engineering aspect of constructing wetlands is the simpler part of this process. The policies and laws governing theRio Grande in southern New Mexico/west Texas are quite complex. Several Federal, State and Local Agencies hold rightsand credits associated with the City’s effluent. Addressing the concerns of these interests is the topic to be covered in thispresentation on “Riparian Policy Problems and Solutions”. All of these political concerns (permits, credits, and accounting),must be addressed before any construction can proceed.Key Terms:United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) an agency in the Department of Interior – Holds and manages waters of theRio Grande Project – Authorized by Congress on February 25, 1905 Project includes: Elephant Butte Dam, Caballo Dam,diversion dams and the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 of southernNew Mexico and far west Texas.United States International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) – U. S. agency tasked with managing shared waterresources with Mexico as specified in the Treaty signed on May 21, 1906American Rivers is the leading organization working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams.
4016 Tierra Santa Place, El Paso, Texas 79922 (915) 534-6307 mlandis@usbr.gov Planning Engineer with the Bureau of Reclamation, ElPaso Filed Division; PhD Candidate – University of Texas El Paso; Environmental Science and Engineering, Board Member Paso delNorte Watershed Council
 
2012 AWRA Summer Specialty Conference Riparian Ecosystems June 27-29, 2012
Historical BackgroundThe Rio Grande is our nation’s fifth longest river (USGS). From its headwaters in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the river drops from an initial elevation of 13,578 feet to the sea. Traversing a total of 1894 miles, this river alsoforms the international boundary between the United States and Mexico for the entire southern border of the state of Texas.A number of large dams have been built to store water along the river including Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico, plusAmistad and Falcon Dams on the Texas-Mexico border. The dams, while producing electricity and storing water forirrigation purposes, impede the natural flow of the river. Over the last century, these dams and irrigation works havedramatically altered the riparian character of the Rio Grande.The Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project extends from Elephant Butte Dam through the Rincon and MesillaValleys in southern New Mexico, to the El Paso Valley in far west Texas and the Ciudad Juarez area. Here, the river hasbeen dammed, channelized (straightened) and trapped between levee walls for flood control. The releases of water fromElephant Butte and Caballo Dams are tied to irrigation schedules, and all of the water in storage is allotted to farm acreage inNew Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. There are no legal constraints to keep water in the river (ecological flow) for the sake of the river or riparian habitat. This portion of the Rio Grande Basin falls under the doctrine of prior appropriation or right of capture for water, going back to the Spanish settlements and codified in 1907 (USBR). Under this scenario, legal precedencemakes it difficult to consider the application of these waters for anything other than beneficial uses: irrigation of farmlands,plus municipal and industrial uses by cities. Environmental considerations were not part of the consciousness when enactingthese policies, as the users of the river were fighting for the use of every last drop surface water.Consequently, the riparian zone historically associated with the Rio Grande has been actively mowed and for the most parteradicated. The flora and fauna historically connected to the river have been eliminated or vastly reduced in numbers to thepoint where the river today is little more than a large irrigation ditch, devoid of the rich ecosystem that existed until early 20
th
 century. These changes on the Rio Grande below the Elephant Butte Dam have been the direct result of policy decisions andengineering solutions applied to the prospect of farming in a desert climate.Paradoxically, the highest level of recreation in the Rio Grande now occurs during the non-irrigation season when the bedof the river is dry. The “river” provides an accessible area for riding horses, motorcycles, four wheel drive vehicles, andpicnics in the middle of the winter.The River is EphemeralHistorically, the flows of the river have been unreliable. Prior to the advent of intensive irrigation and to construction of the Rio Grande Project, the Rio Grande below El Paso generally experienced biannual seasonal flows (IBWC). From Aprilthrough June, snow-melt runoff from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico delivered a majority of the annual waters.In the summer monsoon months of July to September, flash-floods from tributary arroyos provided substantial flows into themain river channel. Over the centuries, the climate of the Upper Rio Grande has experienced alternating wet and dry cycleslasting several decades. These long cycles have sometimes been interrupted by acute periods of drought or flooding.Historical accounts from the last 350 years highlight some of these disparities.An 1811 description by von Humboldt describes one such drought period: “The inhabitants of Paso del Norte havepreserved recollection of a very extraordinary event which took place in 1752. The whole bed of the river became dry all of asudden for more than thirty leagues above and twenty leagues below the Paso for several weeks,” about 130 miles in total.Conversely, during a notable wet period in 1598, the Spanish expedition led by Don Juan Oñate encountered a lush rivervalley at the Paso del Norte with wide marshes, an abundance of fish and fowl, and fresh flowing water (Stotz 2000).The Problem and a Potential Solution – Pearls in the DesertThe Setting
:
How to produce an effective, sustainable approach to riparian restoration along the Rio Grande, when all of thewater is owned by the irrigators; where the water supply is intermittent; and the surrounding communities are economicallydisadvantaged? The Rio Grande serves as a receiving water for sewage plants from Colorado to El Paso and downstream tothe Gulf of Mexico. There are no polishing wetlands treating effluent from any of the larger plants (EPA ECHO).The Goal:
 
To develop a sustainable, repeatable plan for the rehabilitation of the Rio Grande riparian corridor using a “stringof pearls approach”.The Strategy:
 
Developing a “String of Pearls” for restoring a “dead” river. This strategy involves a three-pronged approach,each governed by the principle of sustainability: the Technical Feasibility, the Political/Social Constraints, and theEconomics. Therefore, these concepts must be doable, acceptable to the public, and economically sensible. Short of 
 
2012 AWRA Summer Specialty Conference Riparian Ecosystems June 27-29, 2012
reallocating the waters of the Rio Grande Project which would require an Act of Congress, several compelling restorationideas have been put forth. The transfer of water rights to environmental groups to promote overbank flows along the river isone such example. Currently, the Audubon Society is pursuing this strategy with the hopes of acquiring voluntary transfersof water from upstream farmers for delivery to downstream users. This water transfer would be piggy-backed on top of normal irrigation delivery flows, and promote some overbank flows onto the floodplains to provide water for native plants.Another scheme that holds some promise is the creation of selected sites for wetland construction. The idea is to producea string of pearls, a chain of wetland sites along the Rio Grande from below El Paso to the Bosque del Apache NationalWildlife Refuge and possibly beyond. One logical placement of these wetlands is at the confluence of the drain outfallsalong the river. The flows out of the drains while of lesser quantity and diminished in quality (generally more saline) providea steadier supply of water over an extended period of time when compared to an average irrigation season. During periods of drought however, these sites are susceptible to becoming desiccated and might not be deserving of the title wetlands. TheIBWC has begun developing some of these sites (IBWC 2004).This investigation will examine a third approach, the use of treated sewage effluent from wastewater treatment plants(WWTP’s). The Rio Grande serves as a receiving water for sewage plants from Colorado to El Paso and downstream to theGulf of Mexico. This effluent is discharged to the Rio Grande either directly through pipes or via an open ditch for the lengthof the river. From Albuquerque to El Paso, there are over a dozen wastewater facilities discharging effluent into the RioGrande. However, there are few wetland areas along the Rio Grande, and at this time there are no constructed wetlands inplace for polishing wastewater treatment plant effluent being discharged into the river. The notable difference betweeneffluent flows and irrigation flows is the fact that effluent is produced on a daily basis. While seasonal variations do occur,generally there is a steady supply available for potential use prior to being discharged directly to the river. A first step is toselect a site, the City of Sunland Park, New Mexico.One PearlConstructing a series of wetland cells in Sunland Park, New Mexico could be one example of cultivating a pearl along theRio Grande. While directly beneficial to the City, this project would augment efforts by the International Boundary andWater Commission (IBWC), the Paso del Norte Watershed Council and various NGO’s to generate a “string-of-pearls”within the Rio Grande watershed. This concept is based upon the availability of land, water resources, and capital needed toestablish a series of wetlands (pearls) from below El Paso upstream to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, a length of over 250 river miles.
www.panda.org
 
Sunland Park The City of Sunland Park, NM islocated in the only portion of New Mexico that lies south of Texas. It is bounded on theNorth by the City of El Paso andon the south by the US/Mexicoborder. The City lies on bothsides of the Rio Grande andextends downstream to justabove the American Dam – thesite of Boundary Marker 1, andthe point where the three statesof New Mexico, Texas, andChihuahua converge. The 2010population was 18,000 andmedian income for this bordercommunity is ~ $21,900 peryear. It is one of many poorborder towns and is listed as aneconomically disadvantagedcommunity (BECC).

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