The heart of the valley runs deep
It is a silent and strong force that runs through the heart of our community. Stealthy, subtle, often ignored, yet vital as the air we breathe.
For millions of years, the Rio Grande has crept down the valley. As civilizations were drawn to the source of life, early humans learned to dig ditches and draw the water away from the silent beast to irrigate crops and stay alive.
And because of this life-giving waterway, the Rio Grande Basin is one of the oldest areas of habitation in the country.
The headwaters of the river rises from the east slope of the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. It enters the Land of Enchantment near Ute Mountain, then winds its way south for nearly 470 miles until it reaches Texas, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
The miles it spends in Valencia County are short compared to its 1,800 miles, but it is a vital thing — the heart line that both divides and unifies the community.
Since Europeans first saw the river in 1519, the Rio Grande has enjoyed many names. Paul Horgan, in his book “Great River,” found 16 unique names for what is now the “big river” in his research.
Alonso Alvarez de Pineda called it El Rio de Las Palms, “The River of the Palms,” and Coronado’s captain, Hernando de Alvarado, upon seeing a great river near the site of what is the modern Isleta Pueblo on Sept. 7, 1540, dubbed it Rio de Nuestra Senora, or “River of Our Lady,” because the explorers came upon it on the eve of the Virgin Mary Feast Day.
It was called the Rio del Norte, Rio Bravo, P’osoge, Rio Caudaloso and River of May. But by any name, it was still the same river — flooding, meandering and shifting from escarpment to escarpment, blessing farmlands with water and rich deposits of silt while simultaneously destroying the structures men had dared to build upon the valley floor.
The Rio Grande could be called a mixed blessing for the people who chose to live near its banks — banks that might have changed from season to season, until the intervention of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in the 1920s.
At the time of the district’s creation in 1923, the flow of the Rio Grande through central New Mexico fluctuated dangerously and unpredictably. Development and deforestation in Colorado since the 1880s had raised the levels of silt in the river, which led to increased sedimentation.
These deposits then began to collect in the Middle Rio Grande Valley — where the river first widens and slows — raising the level of the riverbed and the surrounding water table.
The MRGCD was created to provide flood protection from the Rio Grande, drain swamplands and provide irrigation water to farmlands.
By 1935, the district had built the storage dam at El Vado and the diversion dams at Cochiti, Angostura, Isleta and San Acacia to manage its water.
The conservancy district had also dug 17 miles of new drainage and irrigation canals, and incorporated another 214 miles of existing canal into the system.
Nearly 200 miles of riverside levees and a system of jetties and checks alongside the river protected against floods. The drains funneled water away, lowered the water table, dried the land and reclaimed it for agriculture.
That irrigation of agriculture is one of the many positive aspects of the river, says historian Richard Melzer, Ph.D.
“With the irrigation from the acequias, the river used to have more meaning. There used to be more agriculture,” Melzer said. “Cleaning the acequias in the spring was a community event.
“It’s where boys became men — it was a big deal to be allowed to clean the ditches. The conservancy district is great, but it took away some of that tradition when it tamed the river.”
The Rio Grande may be wide and muddy like another mighty American river to the east, but it never became a trade route for boats due to its shallow waters.
However, that didn’t stop it from being an important aspect of transportation through the county and the Middle Rio Grande Valley in general.
“You wouldn’t have the Camino Real without the river,” Melzer said. “To have a good camp site, you need three things — water, grass and fuel. All three are found in the valley, so the river has a direct tie to the Camino Rael.”
And the communities up and down the Royal Road are linked back to the river for their survival and placement.
There are 10 miles between the major settlements on both sides of the river, Melzer explained, because that’s how far a wagon train could travel in a day.
“They wanted to be in a village by nightfall,” he said.
Of course, in addition to the main road, there were alternate roads that swung west and east to allow travel to continue when the valley flooded.
Melzer said historical accounts talk about floods in Tomé stretching all the way from the river to the base of Tomé Hill.
The small town was called the “village of puddles,” Melzer said. “The whole plaza, church and cemetery would flood. There were often ranchitos on the mesa that families would go to, to get on higher ground.”
South of Tomé, in Belen, repeated floods forced the move of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church from its Wisconsin Avenue location to its current home on 10th Street.
There is even one story that tells about flood waters reaching the tops of the cottonwoods in 1884. Melzer doubts those accounts, but admits the cottonwoods might have been exceptionally short at that time.
Entire communities were erased when the Rio Grande came out of its banks. Probably the most devastating one locally was the 1929 flood of San Marcial. Little remains of the small settlement except its cemetery now, but the people never forgot, according to Melzer.
“It was a railroad town and a lot of the families moved to Belen and Socorro,” he said. “The descendents still have strong emotional ties to the community and hold a reunion every two years.”
Even as unruly as the river was, people still needed to travel, transport goods and generally move about, and the idea of building a bridge to cross a river was nothing new.
In colonial times, there were three bridges across the Rio Grande — one in El Paso, one in San Felipe and one in Belen.
The people in those communities were expected to build and then maintain the bridges. The work was uncompensated, so there was much bitterness over being used as “slave labor,” Melzer said.
“Building the bridges took time away from work, so they were pretty flimsy things, more for walking,” he said. “So the least wave from the river would take the bridge out and they had to rebuild it.”
Even if the locals didn’t particularly like building and rebuilding the bridges, they did do one good thing.
“A community having a bridge could connect the Camino Rael on the east side of the river with the communities on the west,” Melzer said.
The river has been the source of controversy as well, he said. From water use in general, to the protection of the silvery minnow, it has endured criticism and attack. It has set and erased boundaries large and small.
Because it wandered from time to time, land grants that marked one boundary line with the river’s center would see its area expand or contract, depending on the mood of the Rio Grande.
Melzer said even the Pueblo Revolts of 1680 can be connected in some respects to the river. The Pueblo Indians believed there was a bond with nature that included having enough water to irrigate, he said.
The Franciscans didn’t let them worship their Gods, so all the wrongs — the raids, disease, brutal drought — were blamed on lack of proper reverence.
Peralta historian and an expert on the Catholic culture in the Rio Abajo, John Taylor, said in his point of view, the most historically significant part of the river was how the flooding changed peoples’ lives.
“And the cycle of flooding was depended on to enrich the area with the silting,” Taylor said. “It also took away lives, livelihoods, villages and changed history.”
When the river changed course one year, 320 acres of the land grant that was Bosque de Los Pinos was lost. That community would eventually become the village of Bosque Farms.
“It created something, but took things away,” Taylor said.
The shifting and flooding of the river dictated building patterns, Taylor said.
“Over the years, you see consistent movement around to higher ground,” he said. “But if you live in the desert, you have got be near water. Until the damming by the district, you had flooding. The river was the source of water in acequias to get irrigation to places that were not suitable for cultivation.”
The river was also a boundary through the county. Because of that, many people often think of the communities on either side of the river as one continuous population, Taylor said.
“When the river was running, before bridges, you didn’t just cross the river,” he said. “So the communities were separate. Going back and forth was not a nontrivial thing. It really formed a boundary so Valencia, Peralta, Tomé were very different than Los Lunas, Belen, Los Chavez.”
Over the years, thinking of the river as a hard, fast physical barrier has become almost a non-issue, Taylor said.
“The significance of the river has changed over the years. It’s a water source for Albuquerque and irrigation here,” he said. “Thinking of it as some kind of political boundary or barrier is not as significant as it was really before.”
It is easier to cross the great river today thanks to modern bridges. And it has become so managed as to be nearly docile.
But on a quiet evening, as the sun slips over the mesa, the waters of the river slip past the exposed roots of the cottonwoods. It nibbles at the banks, little by little, changing its path even now.
It reminds us that while it might be a tamed heart, it still has the ability to bring life and possibly death.
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