A Drying River… except in Laredo
When asked to explore environmental issues that were potentially relevant to me, my mind almost instantly dived into the Rio Grande. As a Laredo resident for nearly 10 years, I felt this was a prime opportunity to learn more about the problems that my community faced, what it meant for us, and what we could do to help. Having done further research, I decided to delve deeper into the drought that the river has been experiencing for decades. I’d never heard about this problem, so I felt very compelled to determine what this could mean for my city and the Rio Grande Basin as a whole.
What I found in my primary research sessions seemed alarming enough: many places along the river frequently experience dangerously low water flow, with some areas even drying completely. The agricultural sectors of Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado were suffering as farmers were granted less and less water by the government to support their crops year after year. Some animals had made it into the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service endangered species list, such as the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the Southwestern willow flycatcher, and the New Mexican meadow jumping mouse (Interstate Stream Commission). The snowpack that feeds the beginning of the river atop the Colorado San Juan mountain range is in danger of disappearing due to climate change. All this evidence points to a problem that is widespread, severe, and demanding of a comprehensive response by the U.S. government, as well as individual state and local governments.
Although evidence of the danger that the drought poses to the Rio Grande Basin was ubiquitous, I could not find anything that concerned Laredo directly. No articles, no opinion pieces, no recent scientific studies of the area. This was surprising, but less so when I considered that I’d personally never heard people in Laredo discussing the issue. In what ways is Laredo affected by the Rio Grande’s drought? How urgent is the problem in our region? Should people be worried? What has the city done in response to this issue? These are the questions that drove my field research, as well as the broad topic we discussed in class of sensitizing.
To find the answers, it made sense to speak to someone with connections to the city government with inside knowledge. I scoured my contact lists, and was pleased to learn that a friend’s dad , Gene Belmares, is currently in a top position in devising the city’s water and waste management plan for the next 50 years. After a short email exchange, I set up a virtual interview with him, in which we discussed the city’s place in this whole issue.
I started out my line of questioning by first asking Mr. Belmares to tell me what he knows about the drought of the Rio Grande in broad terms and how severe he thinks the problem is to both the Rio Grande Basin and Laredo. To my surprise, Mr. Belmares explained to me that although there are many places along the Rio Grande Basin that are greatly affected, Laredo is not one of them. The explanation was multifaceted. Over many years, our city has invested enough funds into buying enough water rights to support us for about 50 years.
Previously, I believed that Laredo’s section of the Rio Grande is fed by the snowpack in the San Juan mountains, but this is not the case. Instead, the Pecos river in Texas and the Conchos river in Chihuahua are the main tributaries that supply our water. Places that lie north of the Amistad Reservoir near Del Rio are at much greater risk since that region is the one fed by the snowpack. The biggest problem that Laredo has faced in the near past is dealing with Mexico’s accumulated water debt. Managing the river’s waters is an extremely complex geopolitical issue according to Mr. Belmares, and this is something that threatens Laredo far more than the possibility of our section of the river’s waters drying up. Even though Laredo spends about 35 million gallons of water every day, we’re predicted to hold a surplus of water until 2040, withstanding the fact that the Rio Grande is Laredo’s primary and only source of water. Currently, Laredo is in the middle of considering future secondary water sources, as well as securing a reliable emergency source of water in case of unforeseen extreme circumstances, such as a natural disaster.
Having heard this, I asked Mr. Belmares if Laredo citizens should be concerned in any way with Laredo’s situation. Fortunately, he said he’s confident that the people of Laredo will enjoy water security for at least two decades, though he did mention that it’s likely that we will see increasing water rates in the future to support Laredo’s ambitious water plan. Him and I agreed that people were likely to complain about these price increases and likely come to question their necessity. This conclusion lead us to further discuss people’s excessive concern for present problems and instantaneous solutions with the least amount of sacrifice. This mentality is often what stops people from really committing to an environmental lifestyle, or at least an environmental agenda. Often, when trying to raise awareness for an environmental cause, people will lose interest when asked to inconvenience themselves in some way, such as using less water, adopting a more environmentally friendly form of transportation, or donate to an organization that directly combats a problem.
Not only did I have most of my most burning questions satisfied, I gained a totally new perspective on how Laredo is affected by the drought of the river. A new rhetorical question arose: how can Laredo’s citizens be convinced that investment in the water security of the city is not only necessary, but beneficial to everyone in the long term? What evidence could I bring forward to make a convincing argument and give presence to this issue to the citizens of Laredo specifically?
I figured a good place to start looking would be the Rio Grande itself, so I drove down to the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge to get a better understanding of the river and the surrounding area. The weather that day was cloudy, and there was a good chance of rain, giving the area that familiar smell preceding the pour. The air was a mixture of different aromas: the river’s waters, the surrounding vegetation, and the exhaust of the cars traversing the roads that lead to the nearby outlet mall.
Shortly after approaching the river bank, a gentleman sitting in his car facing the river called to me and asked for me to come closer. He inquired what I was doing holding a notebook and pencil walking around the place, and I told him all about the project I was doing. He showed interest, and even told me what he knew about the drought. Humberto is a retired man and a former veteran, and he goes to the river almost every weekend either with his granddaughter or by himself to drink a tall can of beer and be lulled by the sight of the flowing river. He mentioned he is aware of this issue, especially on the Mexican side around the Chihuahua desert and how it’s affecting the region. Because we were talking about environmental issues, Humberto asked me what my thoughts were on the Green New Deal, Biden’s performance as a president so far, and whether my beliefs align with those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. After I answered, he seemed a little disappointed and gave his two cents quickly after. Humberto doesn’t believe that the United States placing so much emphasis on environmental action is a vain effort in the face of the pollution that other countries of the world put out. “China’s really behind most of the world’s pollution, if you didn’t know. We can’t force them to stop, so why should we, you know? It’s not going to make a big enough difference,” he claimed. Though I don’t agree with him politically or philosophically, I appreciated the perspective he provided. This man is a discouraged Laredo native with a pessimistic view of the government’s present direction and environmental issues in general. It occurred to me that this is the kind of person that I should be addressing in my argument essay, and that I’d need to clearly define why people such as himself have a stake in the matter and what tangible things are being done to combat this issue in Laredo, or at least delay it.
After saying our goodbyes, I continued my interview of the river bank with the conversations I has with both Humberto and Mr. Belmares in mind. As the latter had expected, the problem didn’t seem extremely sensible in the immediate area. The river, though very murky due to the pollution both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo contribute, had a steady flow and normal water levels. The currents forming in the water seemed dangerous enough to deter swimming. I observed both the vegetation growing on the Mexican and the American sides of the river, and I could tell it was relatively healthy. The earth was soft and damp; my footprints trailed behind me as I traversed the river bank. After walking for about 5 minutes in a direction, I discovered a narrow path that lead into a growth just off the water. The trees varied between alive and dead, shrubbery and weeds crowded the floor of the “forest”, and yellow petals fell onto the path from the trees above. A plethora of birds and insects lived within this confined space, and they were happy to make their presence known. I followed the twisting and winding path for about 20 minutes before deciding to turn back since the end was nowhere in sight. After finally getting back to my car, sore from the journey and sweaty from the humidity, I contemplated my trip. I couldn’t find obvious evidence of the impending drought of the river; the flow seemed strong and sustainable, the vegetation and wildlife was healthy and varied, and the ground’s texture was evidence of the area’s humidity. However, I think that my conversation with Humberto was the highlight of the trip, even if it wasn’t what I was originally looking for.
Looking back, I believe that my field work provided me with just as much significant information as the entirety of my prior research. Before, I had only read about the problem and only had access to the answers that I could dig up on the internet, but I appreciate the autonomy that field work encouraged. Asking my own questions was crucial to find a solid direction and audience for my argument. I intend to find more ways to make the drought of the Rio Grande appear to be an important problem to the people of Laredo, even though it’s very easy to argue that it’s really not. I hope to give people like Humberto something to think about after reading my essay and broadening their field of vision a little more.
“Threatened and Endangered Species in the Rio Grande Basin.” Rio Grande River Basin & Compacts NM Interstate Stream Commission, Interstate Stream Commission, www.ose.state.nm.us/Basins/RioGrande/esa.php#:~:text=Along%20the%20Rio%20Grande%20within,Western%20Yellow%2DBilled%20Cuckoo. Accessed 1 May 2021.