TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. (KRQE) – As the shallow waters of the Rio Grande course through central New Mexico between Socorro and Truth or Consequences, they enter a particularly desolate stretch of desert.
It’s hot, hostile and unforgiving, especially for an often slow-flowing river anxious to jump its banks and spread precious water all across the surrounding sand and scrub brush.
“What will happen is the water will be lost in this area and it will evaporate out and we’ll lose large amounts of water,” said Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, Rio Grande Basin Manager for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.
Most places along this part of the Rio Grande, you can often easily wade across in just ankle to waist deep water. This, despite the fact that 20 years ago, nearby Elephant Butte Reservoir extended throughout this part of the Rio Grande river basin and covered it with 50 feet of lake water full of game fish.
The lake drastically shrank after years of drought and now the river is just a thread of water through most of the old lakebed, a wide flat delta. Vacation homes that were once beachside now sit on rocky, dusty bluffs miles from what is left of the lake.
The Stream Commission and the US Bureau of Reclamation work together to keep the Rio Grande from completely drying up along here. Government compacts mandate that a large percentage of the water must keep flowing south to Texas.
If large portions spill across the desert in New Mexico and are lost, the rules say other New Mexico reservoirs upstream must release their water to try to make up the difference.
“And those reservoirs are relied on by the citizens of the middle Rio Grande for their water supply in the summer”, said Schmidt-Petersen. “El Vado reservoir on the Rio Chama, and then Nichols and McClure Reservoirs for Santa Fe,” he added.
To avoid that, river managers are employing giant amphibious excavators to scour silt from between the banks.
The long-armed steel bucket machines are hauled here from the swamps and marshes of Louisiana by Wilco Marsh Buggies and Draglines. Because the New Mexico river area is so inaccessible, the enormous, lumbering machines must slog through miles of riverbed on special pontoons equipped with tank-like belted metal tracks.
“It’s not too different from what we’re used to,” said Wilco job boss Wesley Pitre. “We work out in the marshes and swamps of south Louisiana. It compares a lot in a lot of ways.”
Thousands of tons of the wet sand scooped from the river bottom is used to build up earthen berms on the river’s banks.
Each day the Wilco marsh buggy machines scrape about 1,000 dump truck loads of silt out of the Rio Grande and pile it on the berms. But each year the river also fights back, cutting into berms and filling up the riverbed with more silt.
“Every bucket of sediment that comes out of the river is less restriction for the water to get to Elephant Butte Reservoir,” said Pitre. “But at the same time, the material is being used to maintain the berm and restore integrity in areas that the previous year’s runoff has destroyed.”
Not all breaks in the berms are repaired.
In some places, water is intentionally allowed to escape the river’s banks or seep through the ground into low spots and create marshy wildlife habitat adjacent to the river.
The habitat areas are actually similar to what existed here for centuries, before the advent of Elephant Butte dam.
Some of the river wranglers do say they dream of the day there will be more snow in the mountains up north. Then maybe, the once sprawling Elephant Butte Reservoir, will fill again and relive its glory days.
Then everyone up and down the river would have plenty of water again.