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Our Vanishing Riparian Landscapes
Can we meet the threats to the Southwest's water systems?

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About the cover

Southwest Wildlife

Our Vanishing Riparian Landscapes

Can we meet the threats to the Southwest's water systems?

by Jay W. Sharp



Late in the first millennium, Pueblo settlers began the process of clearing, modifying and polluting Southwestern rivers and streams and the riparian (bordering) woodlands, making way for a sedentary community life with villages, irrigated fields and commerce. Early in the third millennium, Euro-American settlers have very nearly finished the process, having profoundly altered an estimated 90% of the riparian landscape and having planned changes for much of the remaining 10%.

riparian landscape
The Río Grande, with wooded banks, much as
it looked when Juan de Oñate arrived.

Before settlement, the Southwest riparian environments made up the most diverse biological communities within the most biologically diverse region of the United States. The riparian systems endured relatively little damage at the hands of the Pueblos (whose total population probably never exceeded some 100,000), although the exhaustion of localized riparian resources and altered water flows probably helped force the abandonment of some villages. The systems have suffered far more at the hands of the Euro-American settlers (whose total Southwest population today equals roughly 7 million), especially during the last century and a half. Our riparian landscapes are now among the most threatened environmental systems in the entire US.



Primal Riparian Systems


Spanish conquistadores found the Southwestern riparian systems mostly intact. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, chronicler of Juan de Oñate's expedition to establish the first European colony in the Southwest, spoke of the Río Grande's "turbulent waters," "wide spreading trees," "grassy meadows," "countless birds" and "many fish" when the party struck the river just below today's El Paso, following an agonizing passage north across the Chihuahua Desert in the spring of 1598.

riparian landscape
Albuquerque’s Río Grande Nature Center State Park offers a glimpse of what the primal riparian landscape looked like

Early Anglo-American explorers found many rivers and streams still in pristine condition at the mid-19th century. "From the mouth of Bill Williams' fork to the point above where we crossed the Rio Colorado, is about sixty miles," recorded Dr. J.M. Bigelow, who accompanied a railroad survey team across the Southwest in the 1850s. "Along the valley of this river, alamo [cottonwood], mezquite, and willow form the principal, and almost entire, kinds of trees."

Free-flowing rivers and streams, with forested banks, issued from mountain ranges and wound through the arid Southwest basins like green threads woven through sand-colored tapestry. They supported long stretches of woodlands commanded by 60-foot-tall Fremont cottonwood and willow trees and other stretches of park-like savannahs dominated by 60-foot tall mesquite trees.

The waterways served as a cornucopia for Southwestern wildlife. They offered habitat, commissary and water to dozens of mammal species, ranging from shrews, long-tailed weasels, pocket gophers, mice and rabbits to beavers, gray wolves, mountain lions, jaguars and grizzly bears. They sheltered hundreds of species of birds, both year-round residents and migratory visitors, including violet-crowned hummingbirds, thick-billed parrots and ferruginous pygmy owls, great blue herons, ospreys and bald eagles. They harbored dozens of fish and amphibian species, including several that occurred nowhere else in the world.

Perhaps most important, the riparian systems knitted together varied biological strands that evolved in a region defined by its forested mountains and its sparsely vegetated desert basins. Their biodiversity, husbanding the genetic variability essential to help Southwest ecological systems adapt to changing environmental conditions, serves as a crucial gauge for the environmental health of the region.



Our Great Drainage Systems


Most Southwest waterways connect either to the Río Grande drainage system, on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, or to the Colorado River system, on the western side. The Río Grande, which rises in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, drains central New Mexico and all West Texas, a region of approximately 200,000 square miles (plus a comparable area in northeastern Mexico). Fed by a few perennial and many intermittent streams in the Southwest region, the Río Grande flows nearly 1,900 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

riparian landscape
The Río Grande today, clear cut and channeled, downstream from Mesilla. (Photos by Jay W. Sharp)

The Colorado River, with origins in the snowy mountain peaks of north-central Colorado, drains western Colorado, southeastern Utah, southern Nevada, western New Mexico, virtually all Arizona, southeastern California plus southwestern Wyoming, an area of 430,000 square miles. Fed by six perennial tributary rivers and many intermittent streams, it flows approximately 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California.

Other, independent perennial and intermittent streams rise in mountains and foothills, their waters soaking into desert basin sands or evaporating into desert sky before reaching the major river systems.



The Roles of the Rivers


Collectively, the river systems and independent streams and their companion woodlands wander for thousands of miles across the arid Southwest. Although they blanket less than 1% of the region, they have performed the most vital of services for their neighboring plant and animal communities and for human settlers.

riparian landscape
The Río Grande, especially near the larger communities such as Juarez, is often fouled with human and industrial waste.

First, the river and stream channels have conveyed that most important of all desert commodities — water — to sustain life and nurture growth and to recharge subsurface reservoirs. Their sandy soils have filtered sediments and nutrients to improve water quality. Their accumulated sediments have held water like a sponge, releasing it gradually, helping manage and prolong water flow during hot weather and drought as we are experiencing across much of the US today. Their occasional floods, most often following spring thaws and the late-summer rainy seasons, have stirred the biological pot, cutting new channels, distributing plant seeds, creating bottomland vegetational mosaics of forest, marsh and meadow.




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