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Rio Grande flows through an area known as the Pinnacles, near Wagon Wheel Gap, photographed after a summer rainstorm on July 18, 2022. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The health of the Upper Rio Grande Basin is at risk and change is urgently needed to ensure people and wildlife continue to have access to water, a group of scientists and advocates said Thursday. 

The warning was delivered in a report card for the river, designed by Audubon Southwest, University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and World Wildlife Fund to help residents and policymakers better understand its health. 

From its headwaters high in the San Juan Mountains west of Creede, across New Mexico and into Texas, the river serves as a critical resource for many farmers and communities across the Southwest. But there isn’t enough water to meet their needs while maintaining a healthy river ecosystem, according to the assessment.

The scientists gave the Upper Rio Grande Basin — spanning the Rocky Mountains to near Los Alamos in New Mexico — a “C” for its overall condition and scored the basin’s health at 54%. They used several indicators, including water quality, the river’s management and ecology, to determine its score, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The part of the river that runs through Colorado earned a C+ and grades deteriorated as the river flowed south. 

The Colorado section had low rankings for its annual low flow, determined by the mean flow of the driest seven-day period in any given year (score of 24) and received an F (score of 18) for its vulnerability to hazardous events. It received a zero for groundwater, or the change in water level in aquifers in the basin. 

It received a perfect score for the number of state and national park visitors from the most recent year compared with visitation from previous years, and a 91 for bird diversity in the region.

Sandhill cranes return to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in 2021. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Climate change and land use are driving stressors to the Upper Rio Grande and severe droughts and wildfires are expected to put further pressure on the river, according to the report card.

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“In New Mexico, we know that water is life, water is sacred, and water is essential to everything that we do and that the life-giving waters of the Rio Grande have nurtured our communities for countless generations,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico said Thursday during a presentation of the report card in Santa Fe. 

“But right now our river is facing the biggest challenges it has probably ever faced with catastrophic changes coming from climate impacts to snowpack, river flows and impacts to all of the millions of people and communities that depend on this river for life,” she said.

Researchers also analyzed different management options to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the river and to improve its condition. Several options, like fallowing agricultural land, reducing water conveyance losses, reoperating reservoirs and reducing municipal water demand, showed promise for maintaining flows in the Rio Grande, the report card said. 

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has developed report cards analyzing the conditions for rivers around the world. 

The river has been the center of a decadelong, multimillion-dollar case as New Mexico, Texas and Colorado fight over the management of the river. Last month, state officials negotiated a proposed settlement that officials said will end the yearslong battle, but the federal government and two irrigation districts that depend on the Rio Grande are objecting. 

Some of the river’s stretches in New Mexico reached record low flows earlier this year, causing some farmers to voluntarily fallow their fields to help the state meet downstream water-sharing obligations, the Associated Press reported. 

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com