John A. Tures: 'Rio' no longer 'Grande' has lesson for us

jtures@lagrange.eduJanuary 12, 2013 

This Christmas holidays, while visiting my brother and his wife in El Paso, Texas, I saw one of the scariest sights ever that I'd like to share with you. After doing so, I think you'll see fit to get involved as well.

I stood in the middle of the Rio Grande, between Texas and New Mexico (a few miles from where it begins to form the border between the United States and Mexico). It was dry as a bone.

In all the years I was raised there, I had never seen anything like that. Heck, as Boy Scouts we used to go tubing and river rafting on the Rio Grande. Folks used to drown in the river crossing it, thanks to the notorious "undertow" in deep parts of the river. I remember when residents got nervous when they saw a few sand bars peeking out of the water, but that was about it.

I saw a few closed clamshells in the dusty sand, the only evidence that water had even been there once. My brother told me it had been like that for quite a while, and only a flood leads to any water in what used to be one of the most historic rivers in the country.

I jogged over some irrigation ditches, also lacking water. There was little to see, except for barren cotton fields, some dying trees and lots of dust. In fact, a dust storm our first day there obscured the Franklin Mountains. I bet even David Blaine or David Copperfield would have trouble making 5,000-foot mountains disappear. It was something reminiscent of the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression era. And this was in the once fertile Upper Valley of El Paso. I can only imagine what it looks like downstream.

I showed the photos to some local residents here, and they were stunned. That can't be right, they said. Sadly, it is … and it could happen here, too.

The only thing more disturbing was the complete lack of news coverage of the event. Local residents told me that they built a desalination plant for well water, "so we don't have to conserve for another 40-50 years," a real estate developer told me. Well, the dry river bed tells me something else.

The only thing the local paper did was claim that the Rio Grande minnow might be endangered, and treated us to the old "people vs. animals" claim on water needs. They didn't seem to realize that there's no water to even fight about. Farms and fish won't exist because there's no river. As for the sandy patches near the river, you can't even grow weeds there.

Now, I know you probably think that the idea of the Chattahoochee River drying up seems nuts, or West Point Lake becoming a muddy sinkhole, or Lake Lanier morphing into a small desert. But that's just where we might be headed. And the Rio Grande proves that it is entirely possible.

Contact your elected officials. Get involved in the Sierra Club, local hunting and fishing clubs, and anyone interested in preserving the water we have. Because as Texas and New Mexico showed, like a Ghost of Christmas Past and Present, there's a pretty bleak "Christmas Yet To Come" for us if we don't.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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