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Big River, Rio Grande

Big River, Rio Grande
Foreword by Andrew Sansom

Acclaimed photographer Laurence Parent and former Texas Parks & Wildlife editor David Baxter create a masterful portrait of one of the world's most beautiful, ecologically diverse, and increasingly endangered rivers.

Series: Corrie Herring Hooks Endowment, Number Sixty-three

January 2009
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132 pages | 10 x 11 | 90 color photos, 1 map |

Many people know the Rio Grande as a recreational river—a place for float trips through the canyons of Big Bend; for fishing at Lakes Amistad and Falcon; for archaeological study of ancient pictographs at the river's confluence with the Pecos; or for hiking the river in New Mexico and Colorado. Yet these pleasant interludes on the Rio Grande in its more scenic stretches are only part of its story. The other parts include controversies over water rights and water quality, terrorism threats both real and imagined, and the smuggling of drugs and humans across the international border. In Big River, Rio Grande, acclaimed photographer Laurence Parent teams up with former Texas Parks & Wildlife editor David Baxter to create an expansive portrait of this magnificent river that highlights both its timeless beauty and its current challenges.

Laurence Parent's photographs capture many of the most dramatic and lovely stretches of the Rio Grande from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to its headwaters 1,896 miles northwest in Colorado. He includes striking scenes of the canyons and Sierra del Carmen Mountains of the Big Bend in Texas and Mexico, of the Conchos River in Mexico, of the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests in New Mexico, and of the Rio Grande National Forest and San Juan Mountains in Colorado, to mention only a few places. David Baxter tells a contemporary story of the river through the voices of people who are working passionately for its survival—ranchers and other citizen activists, water rights attorneys and water managers, scientists who study endangered fish species, government and law enforcement officials, and river outfitters.

  • Foreword by Andrew Sansom, River Systems Institute
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. The Border Reach: Lower Rio Grande Valley to Paso del Norte
  • Chapter Two. Río Conchos
  • Chapter Three. New Mexico: Mesilla Valley to Taos
  • Chapter Four. Colorado: Stony Pass to the San Luis Valley
  • Epilogue

Laurence Parent is the author of thirty-seven books, including Big Bend National Park, Texas Coast, Texas Mountains (all co-authored by Joe Nick Patoski), and Official Guide to Texas State Parks and Historic Sites. A full-time freelance photographer and writer specializing in landscape, travel, and nature subjects, Parent has published in Men's Journal, Outside, Backpacker, Sierra, Natural History, National Parks, Newsweek, Arizona Highways, Travel & Leisure, the New York Times, Texas Highways, Texas Monthly, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and New Mexico Magazine.

David Baxter is the former editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife. He retired in 1998 after a twenty-seven-year career with the magazine and currently serves as consulting editor for Texas Wildlife Association publications. He also edited the book A Sportsman's Guide to Texas.


After sixty-plus years in the southwestern outdoors, I thought I knew a little something about the Rio Grande. Having fished Lake Amistad, Devils River, and Boca Chica; floated the canyons of Big Bend; hunted mule deer and Gambel's quail upriver from Candelaria; lived in El Paso; and hiked along the river in New Mexico and Colorado—I thought those credentials would see me through the task of writing this book.

Then I re-read Paul Horgan's Great River, his seminal, two-volume work on the Rio Grande that earned the Pulitzer Prize. I talked with folks like Andy Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University; Dick Bartlett, who served on Texas Governor Rick Perry's Environmental Flows Advisory Committee; Staci Matlock, who covers water matters for the Santa Fe New Mexican; and others in the United States and Mexico. Compared to these people, I knew nothing about the Rio Grande. Even after weeks on the river, thousands of miles, and numerous interviews, my knowledge of the Rio Grande enabled me only to ask the right questions.

The easy way out for a book like this is to let Laurence Parent's world-class photos carry it. Write long captions and a fluffy essay, then show up at some book signings.

But there is nothing easy about the Rio Grande. Its history is as convoluted as its 1,896-mile path from the Colorado Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico. People have been living and dying along this river and its major tributaries for thousands of years. The first battle of the Mexican-American War (Palo Alto) and the last one of the American Civil War (Palmito Hill) were fought within a few miles of each other near the river's mouth. The Mexicans and Texans—and later the Americans—fought over the river as an international boundary. As a matter of fact, after they gained independence from Mexico, Texans claimed for their republic everything north and east of the Rio Grande all the way to its Colorado headwaters. Given all the Texas license plates I saw in New Mexico and Colorado, they probably still do.

Settling the matter of which political entity can legally claim the Rio Grande as its boundary is easy compared to settling who gets how much of its water.

Rights to use the water were pretty straightforward when, for hundreds of years, the only settlements were the pueblos along the New Mexican portion of the river. When these sedentary tribes wanted water for their bean and maize crops, they cut a ditch to the river and opened it to their fields.

Even when Spaniards settled in what were to become El Paso and Juárez, there was more than enough water to establish vineyards in the Paso del Norte region. These days, driving along IH-10, it's hard to believe there were lush grape arbors and wine production along that section of the river.

But after the American Civil War things started getting complicated. The war's end released manpower and firepower to quell and displace tribes such as the Utes in south-central Colorado. Silver and other minerals were discovered in the San Juan Mountains. Rail lines reached Alamosa in 1878.

By the 1870s, Anglos were settling homesteads around Creede, establishing ranches to provide beef and draft animals for the miners. Farther downstream in the San Luis Valley, farmers discovered that the basin between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains was ideal for potatoes, grains, and other crops that needed water on a regular basis.

Colorado settlers understood the value of the river that flowed through their state. Trouble was, there was too much water in late spring and early summer when the snows melted in Stony Pass and flooded everything downstream. And the San Luis Valley is in a "rain shadow"; it's a high mountain desert valley that receives little precipitation because the fourteen-thousand-foot San Juan peaks wring out much of the moisture in clouds as they move overhead from the Pacific.

The solution: wells, dams, and reservoirs. Wells were drilled to pump the abundant water from aquifers in the San Luis Valley. Dams were built to control some of the spring flooding and, most important, hold water back for irrigating crops. Every rancher and farmer in the area punched wells and put in irrigation ditches and headgates.

Dam construction was on the drawing boards. Water going into New Mexico diminished. New Mexico followed Colorado's example as the river moved south. Water going into Texas diminished. In 1890 the Republic of Mexico threatened to sue the United States for thirty-five million dollars in damages it claimed resulted from two decades of dizzying water development.

Desks were thumped in state legislatures, voices were raised, veins stood out on the necks of elected officials and their agricultural constituents. Things got testy and the Rio Grande has never been the same.

It took some knuckle-rapping at the federal level to settle things. The Rio Grande Compact of 1938, signed by the three states, officially apportioned water in the Rio Grande as it flowed south out of Colorado, into New Mexico, and down to Fort Quitman in Texas. The U.S. Congress ratified the Compact in 1939.

After 1938 there was some semblance of equitable distribution of the Rio Grande's waters among the three states that claimed it, but let's not forget about the Republic of Mexico. When Rio Grande water hits the Juárez/El Paso area, it becomes part of an international border and, as far as Mexicans are concerned, gringos can't even get the name right. It should be called Río Bravo, every Mexican water official and historian reminded me in a gentle but firm fashion.

If the two countries—supposedly at peace since the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War—can't agree on what to call the river, is it any wonder they have a hard time agreeing on how to share the river's water?

In 1944 the Republic of Mexico and the United States signed a treaty called the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande. The first few lines of the treaty's preamble put a brave face on things: "The Government of the United States of America and the Government of the United Mexican States: animated by the sincere spirit of cordiality and friendly cooperation which happily governs the relations between them . . ."

We can only hope that language is genuine. The people who live on both sides of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo need a "sincere spirit of cordiality and friendly cooperation," because since September 11, 2001, life along the international portion of the river has become even more complicated. Terrorism threats both real and imagined, smuggling of drugs and humans, water rights and water quality, illegal fishing, and withholding of water that's due the United States from Mexican tributaries are just a few of the issues that threaten the success of the treaty.

As of this writing, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building a fence along much of the southern U.S. border. The fence worries many private landowners whose access to the river might be cut off, as well as city officials who foresee further impediments to legitimate cross-river commerce in already difficult economic times. By the time this book is published, the border fence (or fences) could be completed.


While researching this book I worried about a disconnect between Laurence's beautiful photos of the river and some of its unphotogenic problems, especially along the international reach from El Paso to Brownsville. In El Paso, the river is hard to distinguish from IH-10: both are encased in either concrete or asphalt.

How will the Tamaulipan Shrubland of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in the Lower Rio Grande Valley look with a border security fence slashed through it? What effect will a fence, lights, and other security have on the wildlife and habitat of this and other refuges? They are refuges, after all.

Wise heads showed me the way. Andy Sansom counseled that these are not disconnects—they are challenges. They are challenges the river faces to preserve the remaining beauty we see in Laurence's photos—challenges only those who care for it can overcome.

Yes, wildlife habitat in the Lower Valley is being paved over for housing developments, shopping malls, and maquiladoras, but there are people doing something about it. In Colorado, housing developments are going in at the edge of the same river that still floods on a regular basis despite upstream dams. But people in the San Luis Valley are showing developers there is a better way to build and still make a profit.

Yes, plants like salt cedar are choking the river from Big Bend upstream to the middle Rio Grande in New Mexico. From Big Bend south, carrizo—cane—grows so thickly along the river banks that it's hard to penetrate the reeds without a machete. But government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private property owners are working together, using biological, chemical, and mechanical means to control these invasive plants.

These are some of the people up and down the river I'd like for you to meet.


Another concern of mine was how to structure the book's text. Most books on the Rio Grande progress from north to south, following the river as it moves downstream. We don't have two volumes to take a leisurely, linear trip down the Rio Grande like Horgan in Great River. Besides, the river today is linear only as you trace it on a map; the snowmelt from Stony Pass is intercepted by reservoirs and irrigation canals and no longer makes a complete trip to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Rio Grande has arguably ceased to be a single river; it is now two or three. It has a crystalline birth from snowflakes in Colorado's San Juans but is reinvigorated by the Chama near Española in New Mexico. Even in good years, little of the Rio Grande is left as it moves below El Paso/Juárez, its water used and reused on one million acres of irrigated agriculture. Only at Presidio/Ojinaga does the Río Conchos resurrect the Rio Grande with water from Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. At Lake Amistad, the Pecos and Devils rivers deliver another shot of water.

Additionally, the Rio Grande and these major tributaries were not explored or settled in an uninterrupted, north-to-south direction. The first Paleo-American and Amerind arrivals to the Rio Grande did move in from the north. Later, however, Spaniards poked around the mouth of what they first called Rio de las Palmas for the palm trees that lined the river miles upstream from the Gulf. Farther west, other Spaniards moved upstream, crossed at Paso del Norte, and worked their way up the river until they hit the pueblos established centuries before their arrival.

So, we will begin our Rio Grande exploration in the Lower Valley and work upstream to Paso del Norte. From there we'll backtrack a bit and cross the Río Bravo at Presidio/Ojinaga and head up the Río Conchos to its headwaters near San Juanito, Chihuahua. Starting afresh at Las Cruces, New Mexico, we'll travel up through the Mesilla Valley, past Elephant Butte Reservoir; into the Middle Rio Grande, which includes Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Albuquerque, and the Middle Pueblos; then to Santa Fe and Taos. We'll finish in Colorado at Stony Pass, Rio Grande Reservoir, and the San Luis Valley.

Along the way, every person I met gave me the names of three or four more "people you really should talk to." I'm certain these folks could have contributed valuable substance to the text, but time, travel budgets, and editors demanded their exclusion.

The same constraints, complicated by an inexcusably inadequate command of the Spanish language, yielded interviews with only a few people in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. The Río Conchos plays a huge part in the river's story, and we should remember that there are two banks to the Rio Grande/Río Bravo as it flows from Paso del Norte to the Gulf.

Though the story is diminished without the contributions of those I missed, I hope what information I can pass on will encourage those who read the text or admire the photos to start their own exploration of what we now call the Rio Grande—to learn what it was, what it has become, and what it can become if we take inspiration from the work of its people.