The following information is taken from a collaborative brochure produced by IBWC, EBID and other partners. Additional details can be found at the IBWC website
The Rio Grande Canalization Project
Restoring Riparian Habitat along the Lower Rio Grande
In the arid West, we are all connected by rivers; they are the lifeblood of our land, our economy, and our way of life. Iconic western rivers like the Rio Grande provide drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people and sustain our local food supply and economy. In the 1940s, the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) channelized the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and constructed levees to minimize risk to landowners from high flows and increase the efficiency of water deliveries to farmers and Mexico. These actions, called the Rio Grande Canalization Project, altered natural river processes and function resulting in the loss and decline of native forest, shrub and meadow habitat along the river. In June 2009, the agency committed to restoring native trees, shrubs and grasslands on up to 30 restoration sites and other areas of the floodplain totaling approximately 2,500 acres along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico and West Texas.
Here’s where YOU can help.
Without water, the USIBWC cannot meet its restoration goals. Because the water in the Rio Grande is fully appropriated for farming, we are looking for water right holders to voluntarily donate, sell, or lease their water rights for use in environmental restoration. These rights will provide long-term ecological benefits at restoration sites while offsetting the water consumption from newly established riparian vegetation. This arrangement allows both agriculture and the Rio Grande to thrive side by side.
Before construction of the Rio Grande Canalization Project, the floodplain was a mosaic of riparian habitats including open woodlands, dense riparian shrub, and wet meadows. Our river valley was filled with native plants like cottonwood trees, screwbean mesquite, coyote willow, wolfberry, sedges and saltgrass. The cottonwood forests provided refuge from the summer heat for recreation and relaxation along the river. Native riparian plants also provided food, cover and breeding grounds for abundant wildlife, songbirds, and pollinating bees and butterflies. A healthy riparian buffer also improved water quality, trapped sediment and slowed floodwater—free services that benefited people and riverside communities.
Many of these native habitats were lost when the Canalization Project was constructed to control flooding and enable more efficient water deliveries. The USIBWC mowed the floodplain within the levees for flood control. The USIBWC constructed an armored, deep pilot channel anchoring the river and eliminating the natural formation of meanders and associated backwater habitat. Overbanking flows during small to medium-sized floods also declined, eliminating a source of water for recruitment and establishment of native seedlings, maintenance of mature riparian plants, and cycling of essential soil nutrients. These changes to the river’s natural flow pattern allowed invasive, non-native saltcedar to thrive.
Between 2010 and 2014, the USBIWC, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, pulled saltcedar from hundreds of acres, and planted thousands of native trees at eight of the proposed thirty restoration sites. In June of 2014, the USIBWC acquired and transferred its first water rights to a restoration site just north of the City of Las Cruces’ La Llorona Park. With help from Elephant Butte Irrigation District (EBID), the site was irrigated twice and approximately 1,500 young native cottonwood and Goodding’s Willow trees now have a better chance of surviving to
maturity. More restoration activities are planned at this and additional restoration sites between now and 2019.
How Does the Environmental Water Transaction Program Work?
The Environmental Water Transaction Program was developed in cooperation with Elephant Butte Irrigation District. It is designed to shield farmers from liability under the Endangered Species Act and exclude the upper portion of the Canalizaton Project from designation as critical habitat for the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. It also provides
farmers another option for the use of their water, increasing flexibility in farm management and operations.
A water transaction is a voluntary agreement, in this case between a willing seller or lessor and the USIBWC, under which the seller agrees to sell or lease their EBID surface water rights and/or combined surface and groundwater rights to the USIBWC. Water transactions can be a sale, annual lease, multiple-year lease or donation. Under the Program, the USIBWC will acquire water and/or water rights, at fair market value, from willing sellers only and transfer them to the restoration sites. EBID will treat the USIBWC like any other irrigator. The USIBWC waterrighted lands will receive an equal allotment per acre like farmers and share pro rata in shortages during low water years.
“Water delivered to the restoration sites will irrigate
riparian shrub, woodland, and wetland vegetation—it is still
agriculture, but we are just growing something different.”
Vice Chair, EBID Board of Directors
(2018 Current Board President)