October 18, 2013

Border Watershed



Buena Vista looking out across the Rio Grande to the border on Mount Cristo Rey.

Land Arts of the American West spent a week investigating the Rio Grande Watershed at the US/Mexico Border, El Paso, TX and collaborating on a social engagement project with the community of Buena Vista and the Centro Artistico y Cultural in El Paso, TX.

On our first day, we met up with the Center for Environmental Resource Management (CERM) at the University of Texas, El Paso for a brief introduction to water issues in this stretch of the Rio Grande. Bill Hargrove, Director of CERM, along with UTEP Biology Professor, Venessa Lougheed, presented several projects they are working on assessing surface and groundwater relationships as these are affected by biophysical, political, and social systems.

View from Rim Road Overlook across El Paso/Juarez and the channelized Rio Grande.

They discussed the channelization of the Rio Grande via the Chamizal Treaty that created the concrete-lined national boundary between the US and Mexico, controlling river flow as a physical mark of delineation. They pointed out inevitable problems ranging from loss of biodiversity, resiliency, and groundwater recharge to non-equitable inputs and outputs within the hydro-political system.

The US Department of the Interior has assessed the Rio Grande as having the highest  potential rate of conflict and crisis of any US river system. The question remains, is this still a river and/or what characterizes a riparian system when a river is without water.  This seems to be the biggest issue: inadequate water resources to serve all users, both human and not. Threats include salinization of surface and ground water, increased water demands, water quality impacts from agriculture, municipal, and industry, changing climate, and conflicting water management policies between bi-national orders.


Behind the fence. Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) trickle into Mexico from the American Dam.
American Dam diversion point where the Rio Grande is regulated between Texas and Mexico users.
American Channel, Rio Grande diversion to serve Texas water rights in the East Valley of El Paso.
John Sproul with Land Arts students.

John Sproul, manager of CERM Rio Bosque Wetland took Land Arts students on a tour of urban river infrastructure and discussed the wetland project east of El Paso.

The Rio Bosque Wetland Project serves as an experimental model for riparian and water quality research. It is the hope of CERM that through this experiment, science and policy can be integrated to create viable solutions that are replicable in the management of other desert rivers around the world.

Rio Bosque Wetlands river channel.

The historic Rio Grande channel was re-established as the central river meander through the Rio Bosque Wetlands, distributing water resources to the 372 acre complex. Over the last decade, drought conditions, water shortages, and increased temperature extremes have marginalized this riparian experiment to a small percentage of its actual land area, killing many of the transplanted Alamos and stressing other species. Mesquite, wolfberry, fourwing saltbush and a host of other native and invasive plants are slowly terraforming this habitat and creating a realistic portrait of the drier and hotter world to come.

Windmill and well at Rio Bosque Wetlands.

The recent addition of a well to the Rio Bosque Wetlands is now bringing supplemental water to a small section of this environment.  Plans are also in the works to pipe water from the local wastewater treatment plant and supply the wetlands with a permanent water source. The wetlands will then act as a water repository for downstream users while improving water quality through bioremediation.

At the Bridge to Nowhere in Buena Vista.

On the following day a tour of the local watershed took us back to basecamp and our host site of Buena Vista. Roberto Salas, Director of Centro Artistico y Cultural and Armando Carlos, President of Buena Vista Neighborhood Association led a walking tour of the area and discussed the fragmentation of this community through policies of eminent domain and political marginalization.  Cemex then drove us to visit the local accidental wetlands within Buena Vista, called Cement Lake, which has a been an oasis of lush riparian habitat and community reprieve from the concrete jungle of urbanization.

Land Arts students with MSHEA gear checking out Cement Lake.
Cement Lake interactive map at Centro Artistico y Cultural with community proposals for recreational open space at a nearby and thriving wetland.

Land Arts students then visited the Centro, where they would be organizing a collaborative experimental public engagement to be held on Oct 19th. With one and a half days to dialogue, organize, and produce the project, Land Arts students jumped in with feet on the ground running.

See upcoming posts for more on this extraordinary event.

Land Arts students making space by cleaning up the Centro and its landscape.
Near Buena Vista, Monument #1 marks the US/Mexico Border and the border of water allocation.

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