Repairing Habitatis for Wildlife in Las Cruces |

The Rio Grande is nearly 2,000 miles long and sustains life in three states and two countries. It starts in Colorado, winds through New Mexico, forms a natural border between Texas and Mexico, and finally connects to the Gulf of Mexico.

Over the past 100 years, though, every drop of water in the river has been managed via legislation for agriculture and human water supply and is controlled with storage and diversion dams. Today, only a small percentage of the river’s natural flow makes it to the Gulf of Mexico. Human consumption and river management have largely impacted plants and wildlife that depend on the river for sustenance. The amount of water available in the river each year is determined by snowpacks and the amount of precipitation. A dry year equals a dry river, which can be fatal for wildlife dependent on it.

“The Rio Grande has been used and abused in a big way for more than a century,” says Kevin Bixby, executive director of Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC) in Las Cruces. “Beginning in the late 1800s, here in Southern New Mexico, the river started to dry out.”

He says issues in the northern watershed have impacted the river’s ability to store and release water, such as overgrazing, deforestation, and Colorado’s use of water.
“The river started to become ‘flashier,’ as I call it, having extremes of river flooding and then drying up,” Kevin said. “Over the past century, the dams and the diversions for agriculture and the channelization of the river for flood control have all harmed the river ecosystem.”

La Mancha is a habitat restoration effort currently in progress by the Southwest Environmental Center, which created a pond on three acres as an oasis for wildlife.

He said there used to be a mosaic of wetland areas all along the river — diverse riparian forests known as bosques that nourished a variety of species. Over-management of the natural river, Kevin said, damaged aquatic and riparian habitats of the Rio Grande. Construction of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 and channelization of the river in the 1930s and 1940s damaged aquatic habitats. Development of agriculture in the river’s floodplain and the elimination of peak flows that overflowed the river’s banks reduced the diversity of riparian habitats along its banks. SWEC advocates to restore aquatic and riparian habitats and has taken on a couple of restoration projects of its own to illustrate what is possible in terms of habitat rehabilitation.

The first was the Picacho Wetland project, which was ultimately a team effort between SWEC, the City of Las Cruces, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and others, to restore habitat on a 55-acre tract of land. It deepened an existing pond, allowing it to retain water year-round and support wildlife. An adjoining shallow pond is connected to the deep pond by a culvert and an irrigation ditch connects the ponds to the river. Non-native, invasive salt cedar was removed and replaced by sustainable, native plants. The project eventually led to another SWEC effort, a 1,000-acre nature park, which became the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.
SWEC’s latest habitat restoration effort is the La Mancha Wetlands project, which Kevin said has been stalled due to a challenging political environment and large amounts of concrete having been dumped and buried there prior to the project. SWEC owns the three acres of land on which the project is being managed. SWEC also owns Elephant Butte Irrigation District surface water rights, and the City of Las Cruces has lent its groundwater rights to the project, but there is currently no water delivery system in place.

“We created a wetland out of it on those three acres. We removed a lot of material and exposed some groundwater. It’s a pond now. It’s an oasis that is home to many species,” Kevin said. “There’s a beaver there. There are fish in the pond. The birds like it. I’m sure a lot of other wildlife visit it. The idea of that project was not just to restore wetland, but also to restore habitat for native fish that right now, when they are in the river below Caballo, are at great risk of dying when the irrigation releases from upstream reservoirs are ended for the year. Some live in return drains, but many just die.”

The return drains in which unused irrigation water flows back into the river are the focus of another riparian habitat restoration project by Audubon Southwest — a conservation group focused on preserving ecosystems and habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Quantina Martine, a water resource associate with Audubon Southwest and certified drone pilot, leads an outfall control structures project in conjunction with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD) in the Isleta Reach, a 42-mile stretch of the river from the Isleta Diversion Dam to where the river connects with Rio Puerco in Central New Mexico. Quantina is tasked with figuring out how to improve irrigation water return drains as a habitat for birds and fish after it was observed that many fish are using the drains to survive a dry river.

The MRGCD Outfall Controls Structure project is in its second year. Quantina and her crew are surveying the outfalls, collecting and analyzing data to determine what species are using the outfalls, and what work should be done to maximize a positive impact on wildlife habitat. There are 15 outfalls, or irrigation drains, along the reach and Quantina’s team chose six of those on which to focus, a sampling based on location in order to get a big-picture dataset from the entire area. It focuses on two endangered species: the silvery minnow and the Southwest willow flycatcher. At one outfall, though, Quantina recorded data on about 40 species.

One challenge to the project, besides efforts being slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, is drought.
“Last year was definitely dry. It really does affect the bird species that depend on water. Optimal habitat is water in the river, water in the outfall, tons of willows and cottonwoods,” Quantina said. “Looking at the grass, everything, it’s pretty sad. They predict that it will be [dry] like last year or even worse. We’re just monitoring — monitor these outfalls, what’s happening in the river, in the drains, with the fish and birds . . . [The dry river] does allow us to see what is happening — to collect data and images. We’re just going to continue to do that and work with our partners.”
One of Quantina’s colleagues at Audubon, avian biologist Amy Erickson, assists with the outfalls project, but focuses the bulk of her work on partnering with area landowners on improving habitat on private land.

Amy works with landowners to assess goals, such as removing salt cedar, improving wildlife habitat, or growing more grass, then she connects them with Natural Resources Conservation Service funding to meet them. The competitive grants are parsed based on ranked criteria, and Amy helps landowners navigate the process. The landowners agree to put in some of their own money and labor, but Amy said the biggest challenge is finding interested or qualified landowners.

The MRGCD is currently conducting pilot projects aimed at conserving river water. The Partial Season Leasing Program financially compensates farmers to voluntarily suspend irrigation from the river for part of the season. In 2020, the MRGCD began collecting data to measure the inflow and outflow efficiencies in five areas of the irrigation system, and ultimately will provide recommendations for farm irrigation infrastructure and outfall improvements.

Further north, nonprofit program Share with Wildlife is working with two groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Cascade Conservation LLC, to conduct a pilot survey to measure the impact of man-made river control structures on water quality and habitats of endangered wildlife species in Santa Fe National Forest. Another of Share with Wildlife’s 2021 initiatives is a habitat restoration project to install beaver dam analogs and plant native willows along a stream connected to the Rio Grande in Carson National Forest. The project will expand the ability of the watershed to hold water throughout the year, allowing beavers to move upstream.

Despite the global pandemic and stalled efforts for conservation groups to work together and get projects on the ground, there is still momentum pushing riparian habitat restoration projects forward across New Mexico. As dry conditions continue, the demand for these efforts will no doubt increase.


Southwest Environmental Center

Audubon Southwest

Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District

New Mexico Game & Fish, Share with Wildlife


Written and photography by Tracy Patrick | Additional photos courtesy Quintana Martine, Southwest Environmental Center 

Originally published on Neighbors magazine | 2021

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