Reconsidering the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo

The Rio Grande as it appeared in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley after irrigation season deliveries, October 2015. Photo credit: Luzma Fabiola Nava

The Rio Grande as it appeared in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley after irrigation season deliveries, October 2015. Photo credit: Luzma Fabiola Nava

Dr. Luzma Fabiola Nava was somewhat startled by the recreational activities she witnessed on a New Mexico stretch of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo.  Arriving in the Land of Enchantment to study the Rio Grande, Nava was accustomed to rivers in places like Canada that don’t dry up.

“I was very, very surprised to see the Rio Grande, on the lower Rio Grande, people walking on the river bed, the sand,” Nava said during an interview with FNS. “My jaw dropped seeing five or six trucks running on the river bed.”

Currently the Luis Donaldo Colosio Fellow at Vienna’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Nava is doing post-graduate research on binational issues related to the management and allocation of the Rio Grande’s waters, with a particular emphasis on the Paso del Norte region of Ciudad Juarez-El Paso-Las Cruces.

Her research is the latest phase of a long investigation of the politics and practice of Rio Grande management. It’s a project that’s taken her from the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado to as far south as Laredo, Texas. Along the way, the Mexican scholar estimated that she’s interviewed scores of key stakeholders, planners and officials from government and non-government organizations alike, including 20 in Mexico and more than 50 in the U.S.

The actors charting the future course of the Rio Grande Nava contacted included the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, the U.S. and Mexican sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Southwest Environmental Center, the Paso del Norte Watershed Council, irrigation district leaders in both Mexico and the United States, and others.

In her travels and deliberations, Nava realized that the Rio Grande is actually made up of (manmade) sub-basins with their own characteristics. For instance, in New Mexico, “the difference between the Middle Rio Grande to Elephant Butte (Reservoir) and below Elephant Butte was contrasting,” she said.

The Rio Grande in southern New Mexico: If you can’t boat it, buggy it. Photo credit: Luz Fabiola Nava

The Rio Grande in southern New Mexico: If you can’t boat it, buggy it. Photo credit: Luz Fabiola Nava

A visiting fellow with the Department of Geography at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces from 2010 to 2012, Nava came to the Paso del Norte as a crisis gripped the Rio Grande. As an extreme drought forced severe cutbacks in water allocations to irrigation districts on both sides of the border, thick column inches were devoted to the river in regional newspapers.  Upstream from the Paso del Norte, massive wildfires scorched the mountains guarding over the river.

“In times of drought the need for stakeholders to work together was higher. I saw some collaboration; they were responding to the drought,” Nava recalled. “I think it was a very stressful moment.”
While more rain in the last couple of years has ameliorated the urgency of the  crisis and knocked the Rio Grande from the headlines, the underlying issues of aridity, climate change and binational sharing of a fragile water source remain.

In a written summary of her work, Nava defined the Rio Grande not only as “one of the most endangered rivers globally,” but a “magical desert river” that is often taken for granted.
“Citizens do not perceive that there is a water-environmental problem since they are accustomed to seeing a dry river, yet when they turn on the tap in their houses, there is always water available,” Nava wrote.

“In my interviews, some people described the Rio Grande as a vagabond, an old man; as an outsider, a homeless, as the poorest river….I personally think that fostering public awareness, in this fragmented area, could have a genuinely important multiplying effect to solve environmental-water related problems across the river basin. ”

To assure the Rio Grande’s future prosperity, Nava is examining the viability of both surface and groundwater resources. For the Rio Grande, two international agreements between Mexico and the United States govern the apportionment of the river’s surface water.

The 1906 agreement divides the waters south of New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Reservoir to the Juarez Valley adjoining the big Mexican border city of the same name.
“New Mexico has a crucial position, because it is the center of allocation for binational agreements, the U.S. and Mexico, and for interstate-Colorado, New Mexico and Texas,” Nava said.

The 1944 agreement applies to the stretch of the Rio Grande farther south that borders the U.S. state of Texas on one side and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas on the other.

An advocate of environmental restoration, Nava holds that the 1944 agreement at least could provide some flexibility for expanding the river’s present uses by invoking a reference in the accord to “feasible use,” which would imply keeping more water in the river bed as a means of benefiting flora and fauna.

“It’s a very broad notion that requires a common interpretation of the parties, in the this case the U.S. and Mexico, on what can be feasible use,” she said.
Nava supports a new Rio Grande-related agreement for Mexico and the United States, but one that is currently lacking- a groundwater accord to regulate the use of aquifers that cross transnational boundaries.

“Whatever you get from the groundwater you affect the surface water,” she continued. “Whatever you get from the groundwater you affect the surface water.” Nava said the 2006 U.S. Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act, a measure that provides for the collection of groundwater data, is a positive step in the right direction.  “This is very good. This is very new for the states. It is something that is needed for the U.S. for a long time,” the border scholar said.

What’s Nava’s overall assessment, then, of the efficacy of collaboration in the interests of a river and watershed that spans two countries, several states and many local and tribal governmental entities?

On her most recent two-week visit to the region, the researcher said she was “happy” to see different actors hard at work for the river.

“There are actions, some programs put into practice to help the environment and water in this area, but I think there is a lot of room to make water and environmental resources a sustainable asset for the border,” Nava mulled.

“There is something missing there,” she continued. “We can call it lack of political will or cooperation on the binational level to solve all the environmental issues of the river.” In the hierarchy of priorities framing the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo seems to be on the lower rung below other matters such as drug trafficking, immigration and trade, she judged.

“Maybe these issues are preventing the two countries from going deep on the water issue. I don’t know how these (other) issues are determining the importance of water or the environment,” Nava said. “I don’t know if water or the environment could be declared as a binational security issue.”

A bridge crosses the Rio Grande near Las Cruces, New Mexico, October 2015. Photo credit: Luz Fabiola Nava

A bridge crosses the Rio Grande near Las Cruces, New Mexico, October 2015. Photo credit: Luz Fabiola Nava

Complicating the work of Rio Grande researchers (and journalists) like Nava is the absence of a centralized data base or even a website that puts together all the statistics and reports from disparate water agencies into one easily accessible place, as well as differing standards of measurement that vary from state-to-state and country-to-country.

Culling together the necessary facts and figures, she maintained, would allow “a deep overview” of the Rio Grande and allow, for example, better gauging of the use of both surface and groundwater resources.

“We need to see all that information together,” Nava stressed. “We need to put all these pieces together.”

Well-traveled and multilingual, Nava brings an inter-disciplinary and global perspective to her study of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. After earning a bachelor’s degree in international trade from the University of Guanajuato, Mexico, she went on to gain a master’s in political science from the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Her Ph.D. in international relations was awarded earlier this year by Canada’s Laval University. Authored in French, Nava’s dissertation examined sustainable development and the governance of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo Basin.

Dr. Nava will continue as the Colosio Fellow of the Austria-based IIASA in 2016. The independent institute’s Luis Donaldo Colosio Fellowship is named after the Mexican presidential candidate who was assassinated in Tijuana in 1994. Prior to becoming a politician, Colosio did a research stint at the IIASA.

Funded by member organizations from across the world, the IIASA does research on energy and climate change, food and water, and poverty and equity.

In accordance with her fellowship, Nava is developing a set of “innovative” recommendations for the future binational management of a river system shared by two neighbors, which she plans on delivering to the key agencies and stakeholders. Will the Rio Grande expert send them to political leaders as well? “Maybe I will, for the sake of the river,” Nava hinted.

“I hope somehow my research will contribute to finding a solution, just to improve the region,” she told FNS.

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