Irrigation Water Helps Restore Native Vegetation To Rio Grande

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
July 01, 2014
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Newly planted cottonwood and willow trees take in irrigation water near Rio Grande outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The Rio Grande is recovering some native vegetation with irrigation water typically used by farmers. 

The International Boundary and Water Commission oversees water treaties between the United States and Mexico. But lately the agency has invested in river restoration projects.

In southern New Mexico it's buying water rights from local land owners and using it to irrigate native vegetation.

"We're not going to be growing cotton, we're not growing chiles, we're growing the environment," said Edward Drusina, the U.S. Commissioner for the IBWC.

Drusina spoke to an audience outside Las Cruces on Monday at one of the agency's irrigation sites. The 30 acre plot just steps from the Rio Grande is a nursery for cottonwoods, willows and native grasses.

"More than 1,000 trees have been planted at this site alone in an effort to restore a little of the native forest that bloomed along this river as recently as 50 years ago," said Beth Bardwell with Audubon New Mexico.

By 2019 the IBWC plans to work on 2,500 acres of river bank between Percha Dam in New Mexico and the Texas state line. The local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed 233 acres of invasive salt cedars in that area.

Drought and high demand has diminished the local water supply. The Rio Grande in southern New Mexico is a dry river bed for most of the year. Farmers in this irrigation district are allotted three acre-feet of water, but this year they only got six inches.

This spring the IBWC was behind a binational agreement that allowed Colorado River water to flow into a dry delta in northern Mexico in an effort to recover a once-thriving wetland.