Upper Rio Grande Basin earns a "C" in first-ever report card

November 17, 2022

Improvements are urgently needed to ensure people and wildlife have continued access to water resources

A group of leading ecosystem scientists and local advocates gave the Upper Rio Grande basin in New Mexico a “C” on its first report card, noting that the overall health of the basin is in moderate condition and warning that there is not enough water to sustain the needs of all users while also maintaining a healthy river ecosystem. The Rio Grande/Rio Bravo has been declared one of the ten most endangered rivers in the world. The basin suffers from limited water availability due to climate change, interstate water management issues, infrastructure, and increased water demand from a growing population.

The report card developed by Audubon Southwest, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and World Wildlife Fund scored the basin’s health at 54% through a novel approach that builds on social, economic, and environmental data. The report card is designed to help local residents and policymakers better understand the health of their local waters.

“This basin health report card analyzes data to inform decision making about restoration and management across Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas,” said Alexandra Fries, program manager at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Integration and Application Network. “Report cards distill data into a grade similar to what students receive in schools. This helps to communicate complex information in a way that broad audiences can easily understand.”

The Upper Rio Grande, flowing from headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, through New Mexico, and ending in Ft. Quitman, Texas, has supported people and wildlife for thousands of years. More than 6 million people rely on its resources. Native American tribes, Pueblos, and Spanish acequias depend on the river for water, food, and shelter. The river also supports the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the three most biodiverse deserts in the world. As one of the five longest rivers in the U.S., and an American Heritage River and a Wild & Scenic River, the Rio Grande’s value as a critical watershed for the people and species of the Southwest region is unmatched.

“The Upper Rio Grande report card effort has brought important resources to our beleaguered yet beautiful river at a crucial time,” said Paul Tashjian, Director of Freshwater Conservation at Audubon Southwest. “The information gathered for the report card and associated analytical tools provide a backbone for developing meaningful resiliency strategies.”

The report card evaluates four regions: (1) the Upper Rio Grande: Colorado, (2) Upper Rio Grande: New Mexico, (3) Middle Rio Grande, and (4) Lower Rio Grande. All regions had moderate scores. New Mexico’s Upper Rio Grande had the highest score, 57% a C+ and Lower Rio Grande had the lowest score, 41% a C-. Upper Rio Grande: Colorado and Middle Rio Grande also had C+ grades, 56% and 55% respectively.

The overall basin condition is determined by 28 indicators of health in four categories: Water Quality & Quantity, Management & Governance, Society & Culture, and Landscapes & Ecology. Landscapes & Ecology had the highest category score, 61%, a B-. The other three categories had moderate scores. Society & Culture scored 57%, a C+. Management & Governance scored 49%, a C. Water Quality & Quantity had the lowest score, 47%, a C.

“The Upper Rio Grande Basin has long been a connector of ecosystems and cultures,” said World Wildlife Fund Rio Grande Manager Enrique Prunes. “The river has a unique power to transcend political boundaries. Through this effort, we are bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders around a shared vision and assessing its immense value.”

To determine how best to improve basin conditions, project partners developed a scenario modeling tool, the Upper Rio Grande Futures Model. Stakeholder workshops evaluated several management options, including reducing water conveyance losses, fallowing agricultural land, reducing municipal water demand, reoperations of reservoirs, and prioritizing minimum ecological flows. Results show that a combination of these options can improve environmental flow conditions in the Rio Grande. Promising options will be further refined and evaluated to identify a portfolio of actions that contribute to improvements in basin resilience.

The Upper Rio Grande Basin Report Card reflects the collective effort of over 100 stakeholders that manage land, water, and wildlife in the basin. The report card is supported with funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.