Dispatch from the Middle Rio Grande: The Day the River Went Dry
July 24, 2022
I’d been bracing myself for a while, anticipating this likelihood. But nothing could quite prepare me for the visceral impact of walking through the coyote willow to my favorite spot along the banks of the Rio Grande this morning, and finding a dry riverbed. Striated alluvium, ripples of silt instead of water, some mud, mostly sand.
As a friend and I silently take in the stark sight, two women who’d been walking their dogs in the riverbed approach, on their way out. At first there’s just an exchange of glances; we know we’re all witnessing something we don’t want to see, we know it’s not good.
“Hello,” I offer, unsure of what else to add. “What a sight.”
“Yeah,” one of them responds. “I’ve been here 25 years, never seen this. And, it’s odd; we didn’t see anything on the riverbed, other than some trash. No bodies of fish, no other signs of life. Expected to see more of that. The dogs found every last puddle though, and played in them.”
“Glad they found their joy, amidst it all.”
A few more words are exchanged, but we’re all clearly somewhat altered.
“Well..have a good one?” one of the dog-walkers offers — more of a question than a statement of possibility, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders that reads to me as a pained, “sorry, I don’t know what else to say.”
Another guy arrives with his two dogs, looks, pauses.
“Where’s my river?” he asks. “I heard this was going to happen, had to come see it.” Then, hardly skipping a beat: “Do you mind if I throw the ball for the dogs?” He takes them off leash and they dash off running where yesterday they might have splashed.
My friend and I walk slowly out into the dry bed. Sure enough, there’s no trace of aquatic life we can see. Thanks to the still-rising sun and the foliage from the nearby bank, there are pockets of shade in the middle of the river. We pick one and take a seat in the middle of the river — or its memory.
Cushioned by the soft sand, I close my eyes. I don’t want to be able to sit here. It’s as if the water in my own body is itself yearning to flow over this exposed earth. Eyes still closed, I visualize water returning, a fervent prayer of the imagination.
We are still surrounded by birdsong, and I’m touched by the preciousness of it. They’re still here, thank goodness, though I wonder how much longer that will be the case. Their song is pure gift, balm to the aching heart. May the waters return, may the birds not have to leave this place.
I watch how swiftly my mind wants to craft some good, redemptive, helpful idea: we should host a prayer circle or grief circle out here. Organize a procession, a ceremony and gathering connected to an organizing campaign. Something, anything, to pay attention — together. To feel it — together. To take a stand for the life we can still defend — together.
I’m grateful that I’m here with a friend today.
Another woman walks by with a dog. She utters just one word to us: “Depressing.”
We get up and walk further south in the riverbed toward where a man sits sunken into a folding chair, wearing gray camo pants, a hat, long sleeves, shades, clearly been camped out for a while. He’s got one net stuck into the sand, and two fishing poles, their lines dropping down into a 15-foot long stretch of shallow muddy puddle. I ask him what he’s up to.
He explains that he’s checking out the fish life in the puddle, that he’s accounted for some nine pounds of carp and chub. I’m curious who he’s collecting the data for.
“Myself,” he responds.
The water will come back, he says. It should be back in a week, given the rains predicted. But, it shouldn’t be like this, he affirms. This is climate change. This is what it looks like.
He tells us that he used to live about 35 miles south, in Belen, and moved up here because the river was drying out more frequently where he was, like this. Before that, he lived in West Virginia, where a 36-foot-deep river dried up one year. But it came back. He knows that rivers can dry in cycles, but he also knows it should not be happening like this. Next summer will be worse, he predicted.
He doesn’t think the population of Albuquerque will have to relocate anytime soon, even as water grows scarcer and heat higher. There’s too much federal stake here, given the massive storehouse of nuclear warheads located nearby. Phoenix might have to be abandoned, but not here, he says. They’ll truck things in if they have to. They’ll give up DC before they give up what’s here, he says, adding that he used to be in the military, and implying he’s in on things we might not be. He says he’ll stay in that spot another 20 minutes before heading north to measure a different puddle.
I walk away pondering the perverse reality that our proximity to weapons of mass destruction may allow some people to stay here longer, as the river dries more frequently. Meanwhile, just downriver, in Valencia County, farmers are being told not to plant this season because of drought, at the very same time that a private water bottle company is lobbying for a massive increase in water rights, and a new ordinance may open the way for fracking. It’s the logic of a death cult. I’m reminded of the refrain from the Indigenous-led movement group, the Red Nation: “decolonization or extinction.”
If my friend hadn’t needed to return to his car, I would’ve wanted to stay. For a long time. To talk with whoever else was out there. To feel, to sense, when very little makes sense. To begin to imagine how we might hold space for grief and new ways of being, right here in the dry river bed. Because, it can’t just be “where’s my river?” and then tossing the ball for the dogs. It can’t just be “depressing” and then walking home, alone. There’s got to be a different way to be in this together. A way that includes camaraderie, that includes pathways toward meaningful action to protect life, that includes company in the grief, and, yes, even the possibility of joy.
Later in the day, a friend shares with me a memory of when this stretch of the river last dried, forty years ago. She was a kid then, and joyfully remembers rolling in the mud with her friends.
The birds are still singing. For now. Rather than look away, I want to stay, listen, let an authentic response arise. I lament that this day has come, and am moved to ask what’s possible when we bear witness together: how might we become more immense in our capacity to feel, and more courageous and creative in our response?
[If you’re also here in unceded Tiwa Territory and want to be in these questions together, reach out. Meanwhile, here are some links for relevant local organizations and campaigns to get involved with: