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Making a Splash

The 10th anniversary Raft the Rio race gives the Southwest Environmental Center a chance to float some fresh ideas.

By Jeff Berg

 

For the past nine Junes, unsuspecting travelers or visitors who happen by La Llorona Park or the Mesilla Bridge, which crosses the Rio Grande River in Las Cruces, have been treated to a rather unusual site.

Entries can get pretty creative. (Photos by Ken Stinnett)

A small armada of watercraft, all home- and handmade, and mostly constructed from recycled materials, has been espied racing furiously — well, racing, anyway — down the river.

At first glance it may have appeared to be an attack by some folks who've gotten too much desert sun. But in reality, the craft in the flotilla are merely participants in the Southwest Environmental Center's (SWEC) annual Raft the Rio "race."

Kevin Bixby, who has been SWEC's executive director for more than 10 years, explains: "We thought the idea of a race would be a good way to reconnect people to the river by getting them out and on the water. A lot of people in this area think of the Rio Grande as kind of a 'no man's land,' but it is not. The river belongs to all of us, and the raft race is our way of helping people get back on the water."

This year's 10th anniversary competition will be on Saturday, June 16. Registration will take place at the ballpark near the Picacho Bridge and will begin at 8.30 a.m. The race will start at 10 a.m.

It's not too late to put together your own "water craft." Each vessel registration costs $10 per raft and two participants. Extra hands are $5 per craft, and all "captains" and sailors must wear flotation devices.

This should be the best race ever, as SWEC has been able to obtain a major sponsor for the event, The Albuquerque Planning Group.

"Since it is the 10th race, we wanted to make it bigger and better, and offer more prizes," Bixby says. "We also want to get the word out that Governor Richardson has made 2007 the Year of Water for New Mexico.

"We encourage that the rafts be made out of recycled materials, but they don't have to be," Bixby adds. "However, no motors are allowed."

Otherwise, most anything goes.

This year, as in the past, prizes will be awarded to almost everyone who participates. The 2006 race saw 25 entries, each one winning a prize in a, shall we say, unique category. These included Best Use of a Patio Umbrella, in the amateur and professional divisions, Fastest Mattress and Best Use of Duct Tape.

Bixby says that the only "for sure" categories are First to Finish, Most Creative, Least Likely To Finish and Best Use of Recycled Materials.

"We'll see what else shows up," he says.

 

SWEC is one of the area's largest and oldest environmental groups. It began informally in 1991 because Bixby and several other area folks felt that other local environmental groups needed a place to gather. A sort of environmental co-op, if you will.

"It was a good way to encourage citizen activism on behalf of the environment," he says. "Most of the other groups, such as the Audubon Society, were small and met once a month."

Although officially incorporated in 1992, SWEC had a hard time with funding and even having an office space for several years. Bixby recalls, "We opened in 1992, using all borrowed or hand-me-down equipment, and we were only open when a volunteer was available."

But that changed — somewhat by accident — shortly after Ted Turner and his then wife, Jane Fonda, purchased the Ladder Ranch in southwest New Mexico.

"We invited them to our first fund raiser, and didn't really think any more about it. But I came into the office one day and there was a message on the machine that I could barely understand. But I could make out that it was from Jane Fonda, and she left a number for us to call. I returned the call, and she said that the Turner Foundation would be making a grant of $10,000 to us!"

After recovering from the shock, Bixby and the others used the money to set SWEC in the right direction.

He has been the executive director for about 12 years now, after returning to Las Cruces from a brief foray to a state job in Santa Fe. Originally from Michigan, Bixby spent many years in the San Francisco Bay area, where he went to school in between stints with the US Postal Service, and also drove a cab in the city, a job that he really enjoyed.

 

"Our membership has really grown this past year," Bixby says. "It is up over 300 percent, and now is about 1,500."

Most of that increase can be attributed to the door-to-door canvassing work done by a pair of SWEC volunteers, Adam and Melissa Guss.

Additionally, SWEC has become much more active and visible, with the addition of a new staff member, Cathilia Flores, who is SWEC's new regional organizer.

Some of the new or renewed issues that SWEC is taking on include construction of a new wetlands area on some recently donated land, plus becoming a more active voice on the Mexican Gray Wolf issue — "The opponents are getting active again, and the wolves need to succeed," Bixby says. He was also glad so see Senator Jeff Bingaman work to get a moratorium on oil drilling on Otero Mesa until it's determined what impact such activity will have on the aquifer.

Later this year, SWEC will be sponsoring a fundraiser, which will have a terrific prize — a 2008 Toyota Prius. Bixby hopes the winner will drive it home from SWEC's annual On The River celebration on Sept. 29. Tickets for the raffle are $100 each — not bad for a chance to win an updated version of one of the "greenest" cars on the road.

But for now, the action will be back at the river.

Looking at the list of "watercraft" that entered last year's Raft the Rio race, Bixby notes with a smile, "Everyone goes home a winner."

 

For more information on Raft the Rio, other SWEC events or to get involved as a member or volunteer for the Southwest Environmental Center, call 522-5552 or email swec@zianet.com.

Jeff Berg is senior writer of Desert Exposure


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