Wet winter gives rise to robust Rio Grande
RIO GRANDE DEL NORTE NATIONAL MONUMENT — Not far from the village of Pilar, the Rio Grande was running fast, high and wide on a recent weekday morning as John and Michelle Hood stood near a 14-foot rubber raft, preparing their 4-year-old daughter for her first rafting trip.
Was Elizabeth Hood excited about her watery sojourn? “Yeah,” said the girl, whose family was visiting from Denver. She flashed a wide grin.
Was she planning to swim? “Yeah,” she said again, indifferent to the low temperature of the snowmelt runoff surging down the river. Her grin grew wider.
Was she the least bit afraid? Elizabeth shook her head.
Minutes later, the Hoods were off, paddling a raft helmed by longtime river guide Britt Runyon of Dixon-based New Wave Rafting. The party trailed behind a small flotilla of at least a half-dozen rafts moving down the river.
With the Rio Grande benefiting from runoff generated by a strong snowmelt this year, Runyon predicted a good season for river tourism.
“Everybody says it’s gonna be a huge year and I think they’re right,” he said.
Other rafting guides in Northern New Mexico agree. So do anglers, who expect a good summer of fishing even though the Rio Grande is still moving too high and fast for them to start casting their lines.
Below the surface, that runoff could serve an even greater benefit, Runyon said. The rushing water will clear away sediment that had collected on the river bottom during drier years. It will provide water to the flora and fauna along the banks, offering nourishment to insects and other land animals.
The fish, in turn, will have more bugs to feast on and the wet conditions will help those fish spawn.
That’s because the Rio Grande, long accustomed to dry spells, will, in essence, get to take a much-needed drink of water.
“It’s a momentary restoration of the process that made the river what it is,” said Steve Harris, a river guide and conservationist who oversees the nonprofit Rio Grande Restoration project, designed to keep the river healthy.
“It’s good,” Harris added, “but it’s not the solution to our drought.”
Those who raft, fish, kayak or depend on the river for irrigating crops understand that. But for them, the ample spring runoff is nevertheless a blessing.
The comparison with last year, when water levels were 50 percent of normal, is stark: Last summer, parts of rivers were bone dry or only inches high; fish — such as trout in the Pecos River — died off and long sandbars formed along once-wet areas.
This year, the National Weather Service in Albuquerque predicts runoff to be at least 148 percent of normal through June.
Rebecca Bixby, a biology researcher at the University of New Mexico, said the increase will help the Rio Grande silvery minnow lay eggs and spawn. With some overbanking, or flooding, the river also will provide water to the cottonwood trees lining the shores and replenish the groundwater in the bosque adjacent to the Rio Grande.
Bixby is excited about the river running high because “we are reconnecting the river to the flood plain and we don’t get that opportunity very often. Anything living on or along the river is going to benefit from this.”
Mike Ruhl of the Fisheries Management Division of the state Game and Fish Department agrees. He said this year’s runoff will help the river clean out gravel bars where trout spawn and draw woody vegetation, like fallen trees, into the river, which will create logjams that are “great for fish habitat.”
The running waters also will “scour out” nearby pools of standing water, which will benefit wildlife relying on them as a source of drinking water, he said.
Even if the region is simply enjoying a one-year water boost, the positive affects will be seen in the region for several years, Ruhl said.
And it’s going to be a good year for anglers, he added.
Evan Claassen, a guide for the Taos Fly Shop, believes that. He said while fishing low-level streams last year, he saw a lot of “snaky fish, long and thin, that were not getting the right nutrition. The water was low, so life was hard for them.”
This year, he said, the rivers will have stronger flows later in the season, so come midsummer, the fishing season should be great.
On the economic side, the state Department of Game and Fish reported there are 160,000 anglers who fish in New Mexico, spending $268 million annually.
Experts say the winter’s hearty snowfall and rain bought New Mexico a temporary pass from drought conditions: For the first time since January 2018, the state has no areas considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
But even those happy to see the river run like “the old days,” as one expert put it, are not kidding themselves.
“The farmer and the rafter breathe a sigh of relief when they see a certain amount of snow up on the mountaintops,” Harris said. “But that’s just for this year. The new question is, is the new normal 2018 or 2019?”
Runyon, who has worked for New Wave Rafting since 1984 and has traveled the Rio Grande since 1968, keeps a daily journal of his observations about the river.
He doesn’t think there is a “normal” anymore when it comes to the Rio Grande.
“It’s like a lot of rivers,” he said. “It’s having trouble because of water, or a lack of it.”