An Inclusive History of Water Use in the Rio Grande

An Inclusive History of Water Use in the Rio Grande

Author: Susan Torres - Biography

Through the Advanced Inquiry Program at Miami University, I have gained a more thorough understanding of my priorities as a person working in conservation, a better understanding of scientific research, and closer ties to my community. During my two and a half years in the program, I moved from Brooklyn, New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico. This move made it necessary for my focus on ocean conservation to change as I immersed myself in a new community and environment. My Master Plan has evolved over my two and a half years in the program to focus on water conservation, community outreach, and how to achieve a more sustainable water future in New Mexico and the Southwest. The following portfolio highlights the work I have accomplished towards a goal of having a more inclusive history of water use in the Rio Grande Valley.

My Master Plan aims to engage Native American communities in a more complete history of the Rio Grande Valley. During my Biology in the Age of Technology class in 2016, I was a recent transplant to New Mexico, so I did a project mapping important moments along the Rio Grande as a way to learn more about my new surroundings. I noticed history often starts when the Spanish arrived, even though Native tribes had been living in the area and farming for hundreds of years prior to Spanish arrival. The goal of my project is to tell a more complete history of our land with the hope that it will lead to a more sustainable water future in a very dry region, and engage more underrepresented communities in conservation.

The Rio Grande runs for 1,885 miles (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2016) beginning in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado and eventually emptying into the Gulf of Mexico (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2016). Through each state, county, and country it runs, the people who live near it depend on it. When the Spanish made it to what is now New Mexico in the 1540s, they observed pueblos using the river for crop irrigation (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2016). Pueblo is the Spanish word for town or village. Today there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, these towns are sovereign nations and include 19 unique Native Americans tribes - many have been in the same location for hundreds or thousands of years (New Mexico government website).

People in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico still rely on the river as their water source, and because of this, many dams have been put in place through the years for irrigation and water storage (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2016). As populations along the river continue to grow, more and more people are putting a strain on the river which leads to a multitude of problems (MSNBC, 2007). With so many people pulling water from the river, as well as threats from global warming and agricultural runoff, it was identified as an “endangered river” in 1993, 1994, 2000, and 2003 (Thomas-Blate, 2011).

Low water levels often mean the river is reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches Mexico (Columbia Encyclopedia, 2016). Low water levels have also allowed saltwater to enter the river, leading to the introduction of non-native ocean species in the river that are taking advantage of the changing environment (MSNBC, 2007). Ocean species are putting pressure on freshwater fish, who are already under a great deal of stress thanks to water extraction for agriculture and a growing population (MSNBC, 2007).

Water is a crucial issue throughout the Southwest United States, and the Rio Grande is facing serious threats. Not only is the Rio Grande endangered, but it is also part of our national heritage, so much so that it has been proclaimed an American Heritage River. The American Heritage Rivers Initiative began under President Bill Clinton in 1998 and was designed to recognize community based efforts to restore and protect the environmental and cultural historic values of rivers (Clinton White House website).


MSNBC. (2007, March 21). WWF Lists 10 Most Endangered Rivers Globally.Retrieved from NBC News:

The Columbia Encyclopedia. (2016). Rio Grande (river, United States and Mexico).Retrieved from

Thomas-Blate, J. (2011, May 15). Baby Steps for Big Endangered River – Who Will Be Next? – See more at: Retrieved from American Rivers:

American Heritage Rivers. (1998). President Clinton: Celebrating America’s Rivers. Retrieved from:

A Virtual Tour of the Rio Grande and the Disappearing Rio Grande Website:

An integral focus for my Master Plan was developed in the Biology in the Age of Technology class. This is where I created my Disappearing Rio Grande website. The website currently includes a virtual tour of the Rio Grande, threats to the river, history, and will host stories and interviews.

The main focus of this project was the virtual tour of the Rio Grande:

The tour starts at the river’s headwaters and continues down along the river’s course with historic dates, opportunities for recreation, dam projects, and threats. This includes the first place the Spanish encountered the river, dates of dam construction, and instances of pollution. I love building websites and had a lot of fun plugging information into the map.

It was researching this project that I first got the idea for my Master Plan. Most of the sources I found about the history of the Rio Grande and Rio Grande Valley begin with Spanish arrival in the 1500s. Yet Native groups had been farming and living in the area for hundreds of years. I hope the website will someday tell a more complete story of the area and how people have been using the river for so long. By showing traditional uses, New Mexico can hopefully get some ideas on sustainable water use moving forward, and include often marginalized groups in the larger narrative of our history.

On the website I created forms where people can submit pictures and stories about the river. The goal is to share the website with Native American communities so they can share stories that tell their history for a wider audience. As I continue to build upon this project even after graduation, I hope people will submit their own stories that I can add to the website so people can find their own history and a more diverse history reflected on the map.

A Comprehensive History of the Rio Grande and Water Use:

For my Independent Study in the fall of 2016, I completed a 30 page paper on the history of the Rio Grande Valley. It focused on how water has been used sustainably for thousands of years until recent dam projects. Uploaded as a pdf here.

In the conservation community, up until recently, there has been a large focus on setting aside large tracts of land to protect it. This paper focused on the fact that people have been altering the landscape and utilizing natural resources for thousands of years, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Performed in a sustainable way, humans and nature can coexist in mutually beneficial ways. By laying out traditional uses of the Rio Grande, I hope to guide current users of the river to a more sustainable future.

I was able to interview a member of the Pueblo of Isleta who was one of the people who identified how polluted the water was on their land - I had no idea this was who I would be interviewing when I first reached out to him! For years, the city of Albuquerque had been dumping pollutants in the Rio Grande that ended up downriver in Isleta. This led to a landmark Supreme Court decision that the Pueblo of Isleta won. According to Ted Jojola, the person from Isleta Pueblo I interviewed, despite first fighting the lawsuit, the city of Albuquerque now praises it's water quality.

Leadership Challenge: Developing a Water Based Afterschool Program for Native Youth

Looking back, I took the Leadership Challenge very seriously and literally as I decided to really exit my comfort zone. Two things I am not comfortable with are speaking in public and working with children. However, these are two things I often have to do at work and I figured the only way to get better was to practice. For my Leadership Challenge, I identified a need in my community and pushed myself to address it.

New Mexico has an ongoing education crisis. In 2016, New Mexico was ranked 49th in the United States when it comes to quality of education measures (Nott, 2017). The low ranking was nothing new for the state, with similar reports giving the state an F, C, and D- in 2010, 2011 - 2013, and 2014 - 2015 respectively (Nott, 2017).

In addition to education challenges, New Mexico also has an ongoing poverty crisis. According to the nonprofit Talk Poverty, New Mexico had the highest poverty rate in the nation in 2015 with 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line (TalkPoverty, 2015). Poor education and poverty levels in New Mexico are intertwined - it is widely documented that people from low-income backgrounds often do not receive an adequate education - therein continuing the cycle of poverty (van der Berg, 2008). With an ongoing budget crisis, extracurricular activities aimed at providing students with more opportunities to learn or get outside, are often the first programs to be cut.

Outside of New Mexico, children across the country are losing touch with nature and the outdoors due in large part to more time inside or in front of screens. Some estimates show that children between the ages of five to 16 are spending six and a half hours a day in front of screens, up from just three in 1995 (Wakefield, 2015). A thirty year decline in hunting and fishing licenses sold shows that less and less of the population is participating in these outdoor traditions - despite a slight uptick in recent years (Rathke, 2014). The sale of hunting and fishing licenses supports many conservation efforts, and re-engaging Americans with hunting and fishing will not only reconnect people with the outdoors but sustain conservation programs as well. The New Mexico Wildlife Federation (NMWF) where I work, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, aims to connect youth to the outdoors and introduce them to hunting, fishing, and hiking.

NMWF began working with the Santa Ana Pueblo wellness center in 2016, assisting in their after-school program on roughly a monthly basis. Activities included making a cloud in a bottle, identifying animal tracks, tying fly lures, and practicing fly fishing. While this is a great start, the opportunities to educate and connect children through similar venues is almost endless. In my role at NMWF, I mostly create marketing materials and communicate with the public through online venues. As a small organization, all staff assist on various events and programs and I had helped at the Santa Ana Pueblo numerous times. I had never created a curriculum or program, and am not especially comfortable doing so given a fear of speaking in public and being uncomfortable around children in an educational capacity. Creating a curriculum NMWF can utilize at the Santa Ana after school program - and hopefully other Pueblos across New Mexico - was a big challenge for me and a great benefit to these communities that often do not have the best access to educational resources.

By working with students in the after school program at the Santa Ana Pueblo, I am reinforcing the importance of water, native species, and make additional connections in giving more Native communities a voice when it comes to land and water history and the future of water conservation.

Since I wrote my paper and incorporated my changes into the Santa Ana Pueblo, this program has been pitched to Sandia and Isleta Pueblos by one of my coworkers who has connections at these Pueblos. The Pueblo of Acoma reached out to NMWF to get involved. The program has even been pitched to the Onondaga Nation in New York State, and the president of the National Wildlife Federation is excited about the opportunities provided by the program as well.

Pictures from the program on the NMWF Facebook page:



Originally, I assumed my Leadership Challenge would involve speaking at a conference or putting together a summit focused around Latino conservation leaders for my work at NMWF. In previous iterations of my Master Plan, I cited a Latino Conservation Summit as a possibility for my Leadership Challenge. I did end up organizing a Latino Conservation Summit where various leaders in the Latino community in New Mexico discussed conservation and land use issues in front of an audience for work, but I noticed another need and decided to tackle that for my Leadership Challenge.

At my job at NMWF, my staff and I had been working with students in an afterschool program at the Pueblo of Santa Ana. The group usually consisted of anywhere from 10 to 25 students, ranging in age from 5 to 12. Members of the Santa Ana Pueblo approached our organization and asked us if we could assist with their after school program. About once a month or so we would go for an hour to help out. Our activities mostly consisted of teaching the students how to fly-fish with practice poles and how to tie flies. With students of different ages and skill levels, it became clear that a one-size fits all approach to our activity wasn’t working, and I knew we could be doing more with these students.

I do not like speaking in public and I don't have much of a teaching background. I don't especially like children that much so I felt this would not only challenge me but give me an opportunity to better my community. I also knew there were opportunities within my work where I would be able to better assist our programs.

Water is a huge issue in New Mexico so I decided to focus on water conservation and education for this project. I wrote this paper in the spring of 2016 and met with members of the Santa Ana Pueblo throughout the summer.

I look forward to continuing to work with Santa Ana and additional Pueblos across New Mexico.


Nott, R. (2017, January 8). New Mexico ranked 49th in national education report. Retrieved from The Santa Fe New Mexican:

Rathke, L. (2014, November 22). New hunters emerge after national decline. Retrieved from (2015). New Mexico 2015 poverty numbers. Retrieved from

Wakefield, J. (2015, March 27). Children spend six hours or more a day on screens. Retrieved from

Professional Media Workshop: Editing for High Country News

For the professional media workshop, I edited a 30 page paper I completed for my independent study down to 10 pages for submission to High Country News. I read this publication a lot as they are focused on issues in the Western United States, including public lands management, water issues, and Native stories. They have a long form section as well as guest columnists, I felt that my paper would be an appropriate fit for either of these sections. I eventually chose the long form section for submission.

To make this eligible for submission, I told more of a narrative rather than the comparative paper I wrote during my independent study. This was definitely one of my biggest challenges of an assignment as editing something I had put so much time into was a real struggle. In a continuing struggle I had throughout my graduate studies and especially around my Master Plan projects, I was not able to get IRB certified to conduct more interviews to include in the final version of my story. More first person accounts could have definitely told a more compelling narrative for a newspaper publication.  

Even without the additional interviews, I believe my end product highlighted the need for a different outlook when it comes to water management in the Rio Grande Valley, and I'm proud of the end result even it ended up not getting accepted by High Country News.


Environmental Stewardship in my Community: Be a Water Super Hero!

In my Environmental Stewardship in my Community class, I created an outline of a "water saver" app. The idea was to have people compete with each other on how to save water - similar to how people track and compete against their friends or family to have the most "steps" to get fit. This project identified ways to engage my community in water conservation, save money, and share ideas on how to save water.

Water conservation is key in New Mexico where you either have too much or too little (increasingly too little). By making water conservation a friendly competition, I hoped to engage different members of the community as well as local policy makers.

This project took into account the science behind behavior changes, the needs of my community, and thinking creatively to get people thinking about conservation in a new way. It also involved technology and how leaders in the conservation community can use technology to our advantage, at a time when many are wondering what role technology can and should have in getting people outside and helping the environment.


I've enjoyed this Master Plan process, as I get to look at past projects I’ve forgotten about. One of the challenging aspects of this class was to identify a behavioral change you could make in your own life that would benefit the environment. It was easy to feel like I was already doing a lot in my everyday life to help the environment, so I wanted to pick a new conservation activity to help conserve water. I ended up cutting down on coffee drinking since the process of growing and making coffee consumes a lot of water. This was extremely difficult for me, as I was not really good at denying myself things and it was disappointing how hard I found it to conserve even more water.

This experience led to a lot of reflection about how people can think they're doing everything they can, but there is always something else one can do to have an impact on our environment. By tapping into people's sense of competition I came up with this app to encourage people to conserve by competing with others. I think this app could actually be very successful and I would love to pitch it to someone who codes and makes apps.

One of the challenges I've found throughout this program is the ability to follow through. I think a lot of good ideas are encouraged but then it's hard to know if the idea could be implemented in real life. I would love to continue to pursue this in the future.

Reintroduction of Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout: A Plan to Engage Communities in New Mexico and Colorado

The reintroduction of the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis) has been a year’s long process across New Mexico. The official state fish of New Mexico, this trout species has become threatened due to climate change and introduced non-native species (New Mexico Department of Game and Fish). A popular fish amongst anglers, getting their numbers up has been a priority for the state’s Game and Fish Department.

Reintroducing a native species is not as simple as dumping said fish in a stream. This is a controversial practice as a piscicide (a poison meant to kill fish) is released in streams before the native fish are introduced. The releasing of the piscicide is a necessary step prior to the release of the introduced species. The non-native fish are killed so the introduced fish can have the best chance at a successful reintroduction. Inconclusive studies have linked this poison to health disorders so many communities do not want the chemical released in their water supplies.

My organization is invested in the reintroduction of the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout so I wanted to take a deeper look at this issue. For Issues in Biodiversity, I came up with an online survey that was shared with teachers and students at the Santa Fe Indian School which includes community members who may be impacted by a plan to reintroduce Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout.

The survey asked the following questions:

  • Do you know the current threats facing Rio Grande Cutthroat trout?
  • Do you know about the plan to reintroduce Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in your area?
  • If you answered yes, please give us a brief description of your understanding of the project:
  • Are you in favor of the plan?
  • Explain your support or opposition to the plan:
  • Would you be interested in learning more about the plan?

While I did not have a great response rate to my survey, this helped me understand how organizing and outreach works in New Mexico. In-person meetings with invested stakeholders are crucial.

This also helped me dive into some really thorny issues about native species and conservation. When do you draw the line at saving a species? What makes a species? Throughout this program, we have learned to critically analyze scientific research and engage in inquiry by asking our own questions. This project highlighted some of the core tenets of AIP.



New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. (n.d.). Restoration of Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and the Native Fish Community to the Upper Rio Costilla Watershed. Retrieved from wildlife.state: 

Whale Tracking Around NYC

This community mapping project was from way back when I was in the Bronx program. I've always been interested in water issues, so with this project I tracked recent whale and dolphin sightings on the Long Island Sound and around the five boroughs to highlight the improved water quality in the area. I partnered with Darren Klein who worked at the New York Audubon Society and happened to have an interest in making apps. He set up a system where I could plug locations and information into a website and it would populate on a map. People could click on a sighting and learn more about what animal was seen, by whom, and when.

While my move to the desert made an ocean Master Plan focus pretty much impossible, community engagement based around water quality has remained a focus. This project also showed me the importance of planning when it comes to community conservation to make sure you're hitting your deadlines.


Conclusion and Next Steps

After two and a half years of hard work it seems hard to believe my grad school program is finally coming to an end. It doesn't seem real yet, and I think that's because this work will never really be complete. I would've never guessed when I started this program that I would finish it in New Mexico of all places and have created my own educational program. I thought my big project would be my website and while I definitely aim to work on that past graduation, I know my education program at multiple Pueblos throughout New Mexico will definitely continue to grow.

In a few weeks I will have a follow up meeting with Santa Ana to assess how the program went which I hope will make it even more successful going forward. I also hope to continue to get the word out about my website and have it be a resource for communities across New Mexico.

This program has given me a great basis for community organizing going forward, and I can't wait to see how I continue to learn!