Friday, June 29, 2012

Wistful for a grander Rio

By S. Derrickson Moore
LAS CRUCES — Once, it was a raging river, wild and free.
These days, it’s often nothing more than a dry strip of sand, awaiting the carefully-controlled trickle that will fuel what seems to be its chief modern function, as an irrigation ditch.
It seems that no serious dribbles start until after the big Memorial Day holiday, especially in drought years like this, when tourists flock to Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences to enjoy the largest water recreation areas in the state.
But finally, come June, patient farmers and river aficionados finally get their watery reward … or a bit of it, at least.
Early summer is a time the Southwest Environmental Center asks us to remember and enjoy the Rio Grande. That was the motive for creating the wild and wacky Raft the Rio Races 15 years ago.
It’s fun with a serious motive: “to get people down to the river — and enjoying the Rio Grande, and thinking of the river as an asset and resource,” said Southwest Environmental Center executive director Kevin Bixby.
Again this June, the races lured hundreds of participants and many more to cheer on colorfully costumed desert sailors in creative vessels concocted from mostly recycled materials.
It’s also a clever bit of counter-programming at a time when many people seem overwhelmed with never-ending disasters: wars, famines, pollution, nuclear accidents, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues, economic collapse …
In 2007 the World Wide Fund for Nature put the Rio Grande on its international 10 Most Endangered Rivers list, the only waterway in North America to be so “honored.” American Rivers ranked the Rio Grande as the seventh most endangered river in the United States, citing both toxic chemical pollution, overpumping of water and raw sewage dumping by cities across the border.
As someone who lived near the Rio Grande for a few years, I’m amazed that any water still makes it that far. And after several years of walks on its banks, I’m also amazed — and horrified — that so many here consider the Rio Grande a dumping ground for noxious waste... paint, used motor oil, dirty disposable diapers.
And that’s why I’m a big fan of Bixby and SWEC, the driving forces behind the fun annual race and the year-round Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.
They’ve started the Herculean effort to remind us of what the Rio Grande once was, a beloved community gathering place, a spot where you could go for a solitary reflective walk or an afternoon of family fun.
Native Las Crucens have told me they remember when it was all that and more: a refuge and THE place to be when they were growing up, for a swim, a walk, a picnic, private time with a girlfriend or boyfriend, a hangout for teens.
When I moved to Las Cruces almost two decades ago, I came with memories of relatively wild Michigan streams, the mighty Columbia and Willamette rivers in Oregon, beaches along the Great Lakes and oceans on both coasts.
The wounded Rio Grande broke my heart and I avoided it for a long time.
Now we have a history together. A memorial service for a dear friend. Stories about wacky races and the La Llorona festival (and a mural of the Weeping Woman under Picacho Bridge). A blue heron sighting. A magical morning walk through the surprisingly varied Mesilla Bosque park terrain with my soulmate that turned out to be a highlight of our last staycation.
It’s over-wrangled and wounded and there’s a lot to do. But there are signs of hope, that once again, the Rio Grande is valued and loved.

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450. Follow her on Twitter @DerricksonMoore.

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