The Rio Grande is a lifeline, a wayfinding element, and a cultural touchstone for the people of New Mexico. The river has been collected, distributed, destroyed, and rebuilt in order to suit the needs of the people within its basin. As climate shifts and economic pressures build, environmental, cultural, and social systems within the agricultural communities connected to the river are sh­­­ifting. Elephant Butte Reservoir and the communities that depend on its water deliveries are at the forefront of these changes.

In the era of great dam building in the US (the first half of the 20th century), the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) constructed dams across the American West to conquer and control the vast water resources within it. This was the first true imperial federal fight over Western development, and it was arguably the most important. There are hundreds of dams throughout the West, diverting and retaining water for every type of use. Every water decision now made in the American West is influenced by the actions of the federal government during this period.

The Colorado Compact (1922), which divided the waters of the Colorado River amongst seven western states, separated the river into Upper and Lower basins at Lee’s Ferry. New Mexico is technically a part of both basins, contributing and receiving water from the Upper basin while contributing water to the Lower Basin.

The headwaters of the Rio Grande are located in Colorado and flow through the San Juan Valley before arriving in New Mexico. During the early part of the twentieth century, farmers in the San Juan Valley consumed so much water that the Rio Grande ran dry in Albuquerque and elsewhere in New Mexico. The Rio Grande Project and the Rio Grande Compact were developed and signed into law to distribute the river’s water more equitably between Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

The Colorado River and the Rio Grande basins are now linked. The San Juan/Chama Project brings water from the Upper Basin of the Colorado River through 26 miles of tunnels into the Chama River, on its way to be consumed in Albuquerque. Tunnels move the water across the Continental Divide, taking water that would have otherwise reached the Pacific and sending it to the Atlantic.

Elephant Butte Reservoir is the delivery point for water to Texas and Mexico from Colorado and New Mexico. Recent lawsuits over whether Colorado and New Mexico have been delinquent in their deliveries are still being contested.

The counties of Sierra and Doña Ana are part of the Rio Grande Project area. Their agriculture, tourism, and livelihoods, which depend on water from Elephant Butte Reservoir, are becoming more tenuous in this time of water scarcity.


This article is part of “Water Scarcity: Elephant Butte Reservoir,” written solely by Kathleen Kambic, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. All images are her work alone, unless noted otherwise in the text.

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The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.