SUNLAND PARK — Below the crags of Mount Cristo Rey, a string of little pools in the riverbed reflect its steep hills and white cross perched atop the peak. Black-necked stilts pick their way across on shocking pink legs, pushing through vibrant grass. A lone peacock, gone feral, zips through the streambed, interrupting the mountain’s reflection.
Diana, quietly stalking the stilts, nearly misses my wild pantomiming, trying to point out the bright blue bird just a few yards away. We both catch a glimpse of indigo wings as he flaps into the brush, and melts away unseen.
We came to this place to see the year-round pools. The high groundwater squeezes through the earth in a space between state and international borders — nearly a no-man’s land. A truck occasionally rumbles across the bridge, or a cyclist pauses to look over the river. Most city sounds sink away, replaced by the flutter of young cottonwoods, the rustle of grasses, the squawk if we get too close to a stilt, a frog gently peeping.
People from all walks of life, all along the river spoke a poetry of place. Each shared a memory of the Rio Grande — taking a fishing trip with grandparents or being struck for the first time by the lush green of a wetland in the desert.
We return again and again. At dawn and dusk, the place is filled with the raucous twittering of white-throated swifts, corkscrewing to alight on precarious lumpy nests, cradling their young. We pick in the mud under the bridge, looking up to see bright-eyed chicks peeping out their heads — next to the empty imprints of broken nests.
Groundwater pools into the Rio Grande riverbed, offering refuge to black-necked stilts, waterfowl, even a rogue peacock. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
This is just one of thousands of small places on the river, already reshaped by a different climate, an echo of a river system that no longer runs naturally. It is a place where creatures belong, but none express rights to its water.
Diana and I set out to tell stories about the memory of a river and document the Rio Grande as it is now. One of those aims was to foster a sense of place, even if people had never seen these portions of the river before.
“I feel oftentimes, we don’t get outside enough,” Diana said in a talk with Estela Padilla at the outset of this project. “If people don’t get a chance to love a place, they don’t understand it’s fragile — it’s not here forever.”
So much of the river’s story is about human hands dipping into it — to take from it, to manipulate it, and also to restore it, to worship in it.
We’ve told some of the story of how governments reshaped the river through dams and other controls over decades. How climate change is amplifying the consequences of that interference. How such major alterations to the Rio Grande set us on a path to where the riverbed goes dry now for miles at a time. How the overallocation of water for agriculture is paired with a refusal to devote water to the river just so it can sustain itself and its ecosystems. How we’re all a part of those ecosystems.
Black-necked stilts alight in the pools in Sunland Park, where the high groundwater creates year-round pools that offer sustenance and a home to creatures in the desert landscape. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
We told you about the desperate, short-sighted rescue effort to save one kind of fish while throwing hundreds of others back into the mud. The historic and ongoing exclusion of the pueblos from the decision-making table.
We’ve talked to some of the farmers and ranchers who are trying to figure out how to conserve, who understand how the river’s health is essential to survival. And we’ve sat with some of the advocates hand-watering trees and fighting for patches of restoration along the river — or for its overall endurance in the era of global warming.
And Source NM has published other stories about big legal fights over less and less water, and still more articles about extractive industries and their outsized contribution to ever hotter, drier conditions.
Even with all of this time, all of these miles on the river, I don’t have any simple answers.
But extinction is not a promise. It’s a process.
Trucks occasionally rumble over the Sunland Park pools, cut by a train horn in the distance. Otherwise, sounds of the city slip away, and the twittering of swallows dominates the pools. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM
People alter processes and their trajectories all the time. Sometimes just a few people’s efforts build the backbone of transformation. But across place, across life experience, many value the river. They fight to sustain it, as it sustains life here.
Any real shift takes time, and there’s not much left. The Rio Grande remains suspended on the bleeding edge of climate change. I fear one day all of these little pools will just be a memory of ours. That our prayer for this river, too, will be a lamentation.
But the fear subsides a little, slipping into the rustle of long grasses. This moment remains, suspended aloft, like young swifts.
Swifts fly to and from a bridge near the Sunland Park pools to roost for the night in nests they have built out of sediment from around the river. (Photo by Diana Cervantes for Source NM)
This is the last article in our series. Find our other stories: Crisis on the Rio Grande
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.