How healthy is the Upper Rio Grande?

A sunny day over a bend in the Rio Grande River with trees and a rocky beach

The Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, in Mexico) is a river in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. It forms from waters that melt in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, winds through New Mexico, and defines the borderline between Texas and Mexico before it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a shared resource between the countries, providing water for more than 16 million people in the US and Mexico, including 22 Indigenous nations, and supporting one of the three most biodiverse deserts in the world, the Chihuahuan Desert.

What is the Upper Rio Grande

The Upper Rio Grande is a portion of the river stretching from the headwaters in Colorado, through New Mexico, to Fort Quitman, Texas. This waterway is critical for the farming communities and natural ecosystems that surround it.

But despite its importance, the Rio Grande is at risk.

Water overuse, infrastructure, changes in the amount of rainfall, increased temperatures, and the climate crisis are decreasing the amount of water that has historically flowed consistently in the Rio Grande. These changes are impacting the health of the basin. For example, unique species like the silvery minnow, once the most abundant minnow species in the Rio Grande, lost 90% of its historical distribution, and now only live in only a 150-mile-long stretch in Central New Mexico.

What is the current status of the Upper Rio Grande River?

A Report Card for the Upper Rio Grande Basin

Read the report

WWF, in partnership with UMCES, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Audubon Southwest, completed a Basin Health Report Card for the Upper Rio Grande, which describes the health of a river in a single grade, much like a school report card.

The Upper Rio Grande earned a C grade and showed an important pattern: the scores decreased from north to south. There is not enough water in this region of the Rio Grande to meet the current needs of all users and sustain a healthy river ecosystem into the future.

However, across each state, there are promising signs of improving conditions that can be replicated and expanded upon:

  • In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, farmers convened and collaboratively agreed to fallow cropland meaning they did not plant their fields to reduce water demand. By choosing not to use water, they were able to resupply groundwater levels through aquifer recharge.
  • Coordinated efforts by water management agencies and the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program in New Mexico are helping to conserve the last remaining population of the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow by improving river flows and restoring habitat. In addition, the protection of habitat space along the river for the Southwest Willow Flycatcher bird is exceeding recovery goals in one area.
  • Efforts to replant native species in river and wetland ecosystems along the Upper Rio Grande in New Mexico and Texas are helping to restore the habitat for birds and other wildlife.

What can we do to improve the Upper Rio Grande?

In the big picture, the Rio Grande needs more water to improve its health. This can be accomplished by improving water management to balance demand with supply for all users and meet the environmental needs of the river and its ecosystems.

The development of this report card, which involved over 100 stakeholders across the basin and various sectors that use and/or manage land, water, and wildlife in the Upper Rio Grande watershed, is a starting point for the collaborative approach needed to address basin-wide challenges, like drought, and identify solutions.

Future management of the Rio Grande watershed needs to be diversely represented. The Indigenous groups within the region are important water managers in the region, bringing a deep understanding of the value of water in the high desert. But without adequate representation in water management planning, the final decisions will never fully encompass the needs of the local water users.

Basin Health Reports are powerful educational and communication tools used to easily explain technical scientific information, increase public awareness, and inform and influence decision-makers to improve the health of a watershed. By sharing these findings to increase awareness of the necessary protection of the Rio Grande watershed, and by looking for opportunities to conserve daily water use, everyone can help support the long-term health of the Rio Grande.
Learn more about the Upper Rio Grande Report Card.