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Some vignettes on water in the desert

Hail, Hail - The Rio Grande Is Dead

by April Cotte

The Rio Grande died this year. We must honor the dead. We cannot let another river's crossing go unnoticed.

Photos of Tapado Rapids, Rio Grande, located in the Big Bend Ranch State Park, 2004 by David J. Owen. Here the river runs with its customary flow.

Junto de los Rios

Junto de los Rios, the juncture of the rivers, Rio Chamo and the Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande), a cradle of civilization in the Chihuahua desert. Rio Grande water travels from the high mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Rio Chamo water travels from the high mountains of the Sierra Madre (Copper Canyon) and enters the Rio Grande with no challenges from la migra (border patrol). People have done agriculture here for 12,000 years, according to a local historian, Enrique Madrid. More then 2000 years ago, they were using modern techniques to divert floodwater so it fanned over their crops.

Making Water

2002 - President Bush negotiated with President Fox for water in southeast Texas. The Rio Grande was dying and there was hardly any water coming from the Rio Chamo. The joke was that when Bush told Fox, "Give more water to the US via the Rio Chamo." Fox said, "No problem, just tell me how to make water."

2004 - I visited my friend Herme Linda in her ejido (cooperative farming community) along the Rio Chamo. I asked her about a strange new cement aqueduct running next to the ejido's canal. How did that get built so fast? Her ejido just fixed their canal and the canal has not even been getting enough water to sustain their farms. She explained: "It was built by the Mexican government to send water directly to the United States, bypassing all the farms to pay back the water debt." I asked what would happen to her farm. She shrugged her shoulders - a single mother, farmer with a $10,000 debt since the early 1990s adoption of NAFTA.

Making Water: Rio Nuevo

2002 - A business group called Rio Nuevo (New River) proposed to six of the poorest counties in Texas to lease state land and mine the aquifer for water. The state would receive a one-time signing bonus for the Permanent School Fund. One of their rejected proposals involved sending water down the Rio Grande arroyo to the southeast Texas market.

Headwaters of the Rio Chamo

Areduvechi 2002 - We followed a creek through old-growth forest, enjoying relief from the sun after a long hot day of hiking at 8ooo feet. The aqua blue spring water was delicious. We arrived to a small community and ate prickly pear cactus fruits on the hill while one person went ahead to greet the residents. Below were small, simple adobe houses with some livestock around and fields of beans, squash, and corn growing in mounds irrigated by diversion pipes from one of the springs. It is just enough food for the households for this year. The river continued on its way down cascading falls, into big pools of fish, bigger rivers and ultimately, the Rio Chamo. We were fed hand-made corn tortillas, beans, and dark greens from the forest. A medicinal tea from a creek bed herb was made for one of our ill companions. We played with the children.

Areduvechi 2004 - Tired again from a long hot day of hiking, we descended the creek towards Areduverchi. The tears came to my eyes before I even understood what I was seeing. A road plowed right across the creek leaving a path of felled trees and dislodged rocks everywhere. Water poured around the road then disappeared into the debris. We frantically started throwing rocks and wood out of the way so the water could flow in its old bed, but further down the road crossed the creek again and again. The house was abandoned. Our friends were gone. There was no food growing in the small fields.

The Rio Grande is Dead

Hail, hail, the Rio Grande is dead: mighty river that flowed through the desert with power and beauty year after year, sweet home to so many species; generations of fish, insects, plants, animals and birds. Singing downstream, roaring down streams. Bring out the bells. Bang the drum.

The Rio Grande died this year. We must honor the dead. We cannot let another river's crossing go unnoticed.

Photos of Tapado Rapids, Rio Grande, located in the Big Bend Ranch State Park, 2004 by David J. Owen. Here the river is run dangerously low.

Make a tombstone: "Rio Grande River died this year of our lord 2004. She was murdered by global capitalism, specifically by the needs of U.S. and Mexican cities, factories, agriculture, the timber industry, lawns, golf courses, and NAFTA. Her last flow was sucked dry by the tamarisk, an invasive species planted to replace eradicated cottonwoods."

Or perhaps the tombstone should read: "Rio Grande River died in 2003 because she was tired, sick, and broken hearted. She just could not do it anymore. She could not watch another child/species of hers die from the pollution. She could not be used, even one more day, to keep her people from each other. She could no longer carry ecoli, agricultural run off, pesticides, and toxic waste from cities and factories to the sea."

But no, this all makes the Rio Grande seem like a victim. Let us reframe.

It is not a coincidence that the Rio Grande stopped flowing 10 years after NAFTA was passed. This was also the year the US department of Homeland Security firmly closed the last of 300 informal border crossings where people have legally crossed between US and Mexico, to work, be with family and friends, share food, culture, and education since before she was ever used as a border. The border patrol (la migra) is forcing her to be a rigid barricade despite her flowing watery nature, and she will not comply.

This tombstone could read as follows: "The Rio Grande stopped flowing this year as a direct action to show the illegitimacy and failures of corporate globalization. She demands:

  • The border between US and Mexico is open
  • NAFTA is void
  • Aquifers are never mined for profit
  • The tamarisk is eradicated along her banks
  • Chemical production/use, the corporate cattle industry and industrial agriculture are stopped and no toxins are dumped or allowed in the river
  • Only permaculture agriculture is done in the desert
  • The timber industry in the Copper Canyon is stopped.

April Cotte has been learning and teaching about ecological and socio-political issues on the US/Mexican boarder since 1997.

Water Resources

For more on water issues, visit,,, (indigenous water issues). In Canada,

Website contacts courtesy of Cathy Holt - see her report on water issues at the Boston Social Forum in our online edition, where you'll find more articles, photos, poetry, and resources for water issues - is a developing experiment -- give us your feedback! Write us at

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