The Rio Grande’s history is vast


Have you ever wondered what the Rio Grande looked like to the first Spanish explorers?

Have you ever wondered what the Rio Grande looked like to the first Spanish explorers?

When I learned the Spanish named the Tiwa Pueblo “Isleta,” meaning “little island,” my curiosity was stirred.

Reporting for the News-Bulletin has offered me many opportunities to learn the history of Valencia County, and has inspired me to research the history of the river.

From what I understand so far, the Rio Grande once owned this valley. Flowing far and wide, it was a wild, untamed force of nature that could wipe out homes and farms during heavy spring runoff.

The mighty waterway, which would jump channels and form new channels as it made its way to the present day Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, flowed as far west in Belen as Interstate 25 and as far east as the foothills of the mountains.

“The Rio Grande is the fifth largest river in North America and flows 1,885 miles from southern Colorado to extreme southern Texas, where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico,” wrote Dan Scurlock in his important book, “From the Rio to the Sierra: An Environmental History of the Middle Rio Grande Basin.”

Back in the 1500s, wetlands abounded and the bosque was thick with willow and cottonwood trees, many cottonwoods as thick as 5 feet in diameter.

The bosque is what creates the rich agricultural land that has been farmed for centuries, Scurlock said.

I can visualize the valley from Albuquerque to Belen filled with the glistening sparkle of sunlight dancing on the wide waterways and marshy pools, the forest along the banks of its main channel filling the whole valley with thousands of tall cottonwood trees in a surprising jungle at the heart of the New Mexico desert.

The early Spanish explorers wrote of large fish in the river and navigation by the Natives in canoes. Isleta Pueblo, on its hill, looked like a little island in the vast expanse of waterways.

“Here the villages consisted of mud houses; the people were good natured, more given to farming than war,” according to Hernando de Alvarado and Fray Juan de Padilla quoted in “La Vida del Rio Grande,” edited by Carlos Vasquez in a chapter by Robert Torrez.

“They raised corn, beans, melons and chickens in ‘great abundance,’” Torrez wrote.

The early Spanish explorers called the river “Nuestra Senora,” because they arrived on the eve of her feast day in September 1540. They learned the river had its origin far to the north.

Later explorers called the river, “Rio del Norte,” a name used for 200 years or more, Torrez said.

Some of the Spanish settlers grew rich farming the fertile land and grazing large herds of livestock, primarily sheep, up on the mesas and llanos.

They traded up and down El Camino Real, the historic trade route from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Santa Fe.

When the Anglos arrived in 1846, they too built farms on the rich bosque lands.

The human population expansion and farming up near the river’s source in Colorado and clear down to Texas began to take a toll.

Clearing the bosque of trees to establish towns and farms and grazing greater numbers of livestock had ecological side effects few people could foresee.

Eventually, the increasing number of irrigation ditches gave way to reduction when the land became unhealthy for farming due to standing water and alkali, author Francelle Alexander explained in “Among the Cottonwoods, The Enduring Rio Abajo Villages of Peralta and Los Pinos, New Mexico Before 1940,” a highly readable book with a fantastic bibliography.

In the early 1900s, Alan Leopold, executive director of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce at the time, championed Rio Grande conservation efforts.

Valencia County settler descendant Edward Otero used his influence as a political leader in the county to promote the creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Alexander wrote.

He had land in Los Pinos, now Bosque Farms, that he couldn’t sell or put into production because of standing water and alkaline soils.

Legislation establishing the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District was passed in 1923, but it took nearly another decade before conservation efforts were actually underway.

“The district, embracing some 277,760 acres, was created to deal with severe flooding, waterlogged lands, and failing irrigation facilities, Scurlock wrote.

About 8,000 acres of the Middle Rio Grande Valley were “swampy” due to a high water table, and another 52,000 acres were covered with alkali deposits. The conservancy was also responsible for regulating stream flow, developing or reclaiming sources of water and generating electrical energy, he said.

The MRGCD built a dam and storage reservoir, diversion dams, 190 miles of river levees, 250 miles of main irrigation canals, and rehabilitated nearly 400 miles of old irrigation ditches to help the local farmers and conserve the river water for greater use.

Today, the river looks and functions far differently than it did historically. The valley is denuded of most of its luxuriant bosque foliage, and only a portion of the river retains any semblance to its original splendor down in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Luckily for us all, there are many restoration projects underway, a story of its own for a future column.

-- Email the author at