Although global warming is becoming quite unkind to planet Earth, it has generally been positive for the trout fishery in northern New Mexico — up to this point, that is. We’re in something of a “sweet spot,” no doubt. What used to be long winter months of inactivity on the trout stream has changed to prosperous periods for trout. (And there’s been no big forest die-offs, or vast fires either!)
It’s a tenuous situation, however, as the rest of the world is going down the tubes. It would seem extremes have become commonplace. For instance, after the horrible drought of 2018, when water levels on the Rio Grande were the lowest on record, the following year, 2019, had nearly the highest recorded flows.
Some small streams dried up in 2018. This is not that unusual and, normally, these little creeks bounce back in just a year or two. Several of our fisheries are below dams, making them somewhat insulated from these extremes, as their waters have stable, colder flows.
Most concerning is that some of the smaller streams and lakes — especially in the lower elevations — are experiencing significant algae growth, high temperatures and loss of fish and, probably, insect life. This is exacerbated by too many homes along waters with outdated septic systems.
I had almost closed this book without this chapter. Our 1960s vision of an America where people would discover that they had enough money has not quite come to fruition yet. And the huge catastrophes of climate change make it sort of passé to even notice the little infractions of mankind upon the Earth. Clean water is attacked by mining, overgrazing, erosion, pollution (in its thousand forms) and development of all sorts.
But global warming is about this myriad of items, some big and splashy like an iceberg crashing in the sea, and some local that make only ripples — like your neighborhood trout stream turning green.
Recently, I had two folks remind me of my place in these plain old “environmental issues.” First was Greta Thornburg on the tele, and the second was a visit from an old friend — Steve Harris of Rio Grande Restoration.
We all love Greta because her face seems incapable of showing lies or denials. Maybe that girl was just “raised right,” or perhaps deception forms in our faces later in life — after years of trying to survive in a phony world. I wonder if she hasn’t learned that adults can’t handle — or fathom — what is happening.
If you look close, it’s easy to say, “What’s the use?” But that ain’t going to work, is it? And those who have been working at saving a sick world — rather than a dying one — need to stick with their job and not go to the dark place. While adults are bickering about another little ugly matter, the youth of the world might win over the powers that run the universe. Save the world, kids. Adults are incapable.
My old friend Steve Harris brought me to this conclusion when he stopped by too. His 501(c)(3), Rio Grande Restoration, has done decades of work to protect many aspects of the Rio Grande and Chama rivers.
High Country News printed: “It’s hard to pin accomplishments on Steve Harris because he usually works behind the scenes. While other environmentalists make headlines, Harris toils quietly, in search of nuts-and-bolts solutions.” That was written almost 20 years ago, and Steve has since been “pinned” with many medals — all while working for the rivers of New Mexico.
I’m not going to go over a huge list of our water’s problems, as many are addressed in the chapters as overall conditions that negatively affect individual watersheds. But here are a few items that my years outdoors in New Mexico have taught me something about.
Grazing is a monster that devastates trout waters, their riparian areas and the entire watersheds of rivers. New Mexico state land is going to look a lot healthier than federal land because the state charges four times as much to graze a cow/calf unit than the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation or Forest Service does. That’s $5.50 per head per month rather than the sweetheart deal of $1.35 on federal lands (that’s $8 per year per cow!).
Real estate development is a real heartbreaker to me personally; I become depressed when I visit a place I used to frequent that has been ruined by building. When I moved to New Mexico 50 years ago, houses didn’t litter the countryside but were in town where they belong. When all the ranchettes are added up, they cause a lot of damage, including erosion, habitat degradation and wildlife displacement and extinction
One step further is the dreaded billionaire class buying up the rare — and consequently expensive —riverfront properties. You don’t get that rich by being good neighbors, and this crowd needs ousting. If we could get a stream-access law, it would help curb this huge threat to our waters. It’s no fishing allowed — for free or fee.
The revised federal Clean Water Act is a horrible ruling for New Mexico because it ends protection for “intermittent” waters, which include many of our watercourses. In the Gila, most streams fall into this category, as they go underground and then pop back up.
I, personally, devoted a lot of time and energy to battling the “moly mine” on the Red River (please read “Red River Blues” in Man vs Fish). More recently, my son Nick and many others have helped the Questa area get back on its feet with stream and lake improvement projects.
That mine is finally shut down, but as I write this there is a proposal for a mine on a branch of the Pecos. The governor has finally come out against this, but mines along other watersheds—where there aren’t so many people living nearby, like Copper Flat near Hillsboro — get approval because they “create jobs.” What good is a job if your surroundings are dying?
All mines pollute, but some more than others. I once fished a stream in central Colorado with my famous fly-fishing brother, Jackson Streit. After a great day on the water, we were driving up the same drainage we had been fishing. We passed a group of mine buildings and I asked him what it was.
“A molybdenum mine,” he said.
I, accustomed to the devastation from the moly mine along my favorite Red River, said, “Can’t be. We were just catching big, wild trout a few miles downstream.”
My brother said, “Yes, but there are too many people around here, so they do it right.”
We don’t hear talk of the Sagebrush Rebellion much lately, but the threat to privatize public land has not gone away. Greedy people are on the top rung of the ladder all over the world right now, and they like stealing land. It’s usually done in sneaky and convoluted ways.
But, lots of groups are watching this and other issues that are important to our waters. These include Amigos Bravos, Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Taos Land Trust, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and New Mexico Wildlife Federation. They really need our support.