EL PASO — More than 300 acres of Rio Grande wetland is tucked away at the edge of El Paso city limits, abutting the border fence.
The Rio Bosque Park, managed by the University of Texas at El Paso, is a prime example of water use in the West, requiring layers of red tape and years of negotiations between multiple federal agencies, county and city governments, nonprofits, the irrigation district and the water utility.
Even with decades of effort, much of the park remains dry most of the year. In May, the earth cracks like eggshells in the wetland cells. There’s only the memory of winter water there, as wind whistles through dry cattails.
But within the reach of the wells, a small stream feeds a grove of coyote willows, water gurgling under the bridge, joined by the trills of frogs and a cotton rat moving in the deep shade.
That’s the work of a man, nicknamed by some as “the father of the bosque.”
John Sproul, 73, is soft-spoken. Binoculars around his neck, he stands in the shade of the park he’s dedicated more than 25 years to.
“It’s just satisfying to see this area being transformed,” Sproul said. “We’re getting back to something that’s at least approximately what once was found in the valley of this region.”
Rio Bosque Park was named not for stands of tall cottonwoods, willows, mesquite or any of the native plants. Instead, it was named for the dense tangle of invasive saltcedar obscuring an old bend in the Rio Grande when the land was given to El Paso by the federal government in the 1970s.
UTEP eventually took over management and costs of the park in a joint agreement with the city in the 1990s after years of discussion about what to do with the parcel. Later, the city transferred responsibility to the governing board of the water utility.
Cattails grow in a dry wetland cell at the Rio Bosque Park along the U.S.-Mexico border. Due to high temperatures and drought, the cells cannot remain wet during much of the spring and summer. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
UTEP assigned Sproul as manager in 1996. With International Boundary and Water Commission bulldozers, he began tearing out invasive plants and planting new ones. He reopened the river channel and cultivated wetland cells under a plan from Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group.
The first cottonwood plantings came from the Bosque del Apache upstream in New Mexico. Then bobcats, beavers and coyotes moved in, along with birds of all kinds.
“Build the habitat and the wildlife will come,” he said.
At first, water was supplied for Rio Bosque entirely by the Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant through canal diversions. Now, the 372-acre park has rights to Rio Grande water and groundwater wells, and uses about 4.5 million gallons of water per day.
Gilbert Trejo, who oversees water treatment plants for El Paso, described the utility as a broker between Sproul and the local irrigation district, paying and negotiating for the park’s water rights, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Algae and reeds grow within the shallow pools at Rio Bosque Park. These shallow pools are supplied by a nearby well pumping groundwater. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
The utility is expanding the Bustamante plant to include a new wastewater purification plant, converting more wastewater for drinking. Trejo said the reuse plan will not starve the park.
“It’s not an obligation, but we want to make sure that we will always have water available for Rio Bosque,” Trejo said. “Our responsibilities are large. It’s everything that touches water, not just water demand from customers but also demand from the environment.”
The utility supported a joint feasibility study with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a project to deepen the wetlands and add additional habitat, with a deal to pay for non-federal portions of a $12 million federal investment.
“The good news is that the study was funded, the design was funded, and if you get those, you’re usually going to get construction money as well,” Trejo said.
John Sproul and Sergio Samaniego fill buckets from a water bladder the morning of June 17, 2022. Sproul hauls the water to the park in his truck every other morning to water the cottonwood and willow saplings by hand, hoping they survive the harsh heat. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
The next generation
Sproul is not alone in his work. Assistant Manager Sergio Samaniego now makes it a two-person operation. Plus, a host of volunteers helps clear cattails or plant cottonwoods.
Born and raised in EL Paso, Samaniego did not discover the park until his twenties during a fieldwork course at UTEP.
“I discovered a magical place,” he said, walking along the wetland cells, dried cattails rattling in the wind, occasionally raising his binoculars to watch for hawks. “Everything is interconnected. I see the importance of water and how rare it is.”
Flows through mid-June were limited this year, requiring more hands-on work to keep the park alive. Together Samaniego and Sproul drove a truck with a leaky bladder of water to save willow and cottonwood saplings from the scorching heat of May and June. They worked in tandem, with few words between each other, catching errant drips in five-gallon buckets to pour over saplings, some little more than shriveled sticks in the ground.
Lining the old riverbed, even some of the elder cottonwoods’ leaves turned yellow and brown, parched. Sproul has a depth of memory. As he hauls water off the truck in 90-degree heat, he points out each cottonwood or willow and when it was planted — or when it died.
John Sproul carries buckets every few feet to water the cottonwoods. In mid-June, when the monsoons finally build up and burst over El Paso, a palpable relief is felt throughout the park. The wet of the earth and petrichor create a heady perfume. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
The bleached trunks and twisted branches of the first stand of cottonwoods planted 20 years ago lay toppled, struck by drought and uprooted by violent winds. Sproul said embracing the failures means hope for the next planting, and the next, and hopefully sustained survival.
“You just have to remember, it’s all part of the process,” he said.
Still, hotter temperatures stress all of the plants and animals. And city development is encroaching, projects cutting off open space corridors for wildlife to travel.
“It’s only going to get tougher from here,” Samaniego said, searching for bugs on a cottonwood sapling. “It’s going to take more effort from us to water things by hand. There’s so much being built up, it’s created this little island, which makes it tougher for the animals to get to.” And if there’s fewer predators, like bobcats, he added, that would upset the balance of various rat populations.
Rio Bosque Park Manager John Sproul looks through dry cattails for signs of water flowing into the river channel. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
Development and climate issues threatening Rio Bosque Park are not unique, Samaniego pointed out. It’s imperative to protect the bosques upstream now, rather than waiting for a crisis to act.
“It takes so much work to get anything done. Whether it’s trying to keep the trees alive with the limited amount of water we have, or the removal of invasive species that are sure to follow with the lack of water,” he said, “It takes tons of dedication and time. Someone has to take responsibility, to take action into their own hands.”
Find the next article, Still Pools: Teeming with life at the edge, at SourceNM.com on Monday.
This project was funded by a grant from the Water Desk and by States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit news organizations and home to Source NM.