The latest news from the parched West is unsurprising but still shockingly bad: One of the region’s most important rivers is running dry in places where water is usually plentiful. Following a period of incredibly hot days in July, a stretch of the Rio Grande river in Albuquerque, New Mexico is nothing more than a muddy creek bed—something that hasn’t happened in decades.
As of July 21, more than 85% of New Mexico was in severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Last week, the state experienced searing temperatures that broke records. Roswell, some 200 miles southeast of Albuquerque, is on its 16th straight day of temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius). And as New Mexico still struggles to recover from its worst fires on record earlier this year, the newly dry river seems to be a sign of what’s to come.
“The river dries not with a bang, but with a muddy whimper and the dawn serenade of awakening birds,” journalist John Fleck wrote in a blog post.
In this time of historic drought, upstream reserves that could otherwise help the river with its flow are already spoken for, the Washington Post reports. One major reservoir is under construction, while others are also suffering low water levels thanks to a bad snowpack year, little rain, and searing temperatures. Under the river’s water-sharing agreement, New Mexico owes Texas water and fell short of its required water deliveries last year, meaning there’s even less water available for the New Mexico stretch. The dry patch in Albuquerque is bad news for farmers in the region who rely on the river for water, as well as for the various plants and animals that rely on the river.
Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows the Rio Grande’s discharge rate—a measure of how fast water is flowing through a river—on July 25 stood at just 20.2 cubic feet (0.57 cubic meters) per second. This is just above the historic low set in 1974 and far below the mean daily discharge of 965 cubic feet (27.33 cubic meters).
“We’re pretty much out of water at this point,” Jason Casuga, CEO of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, told the Washington Post.
The nearly 1,900-mile (3,060-kilometer) river begins in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and wends its way through the Southwest, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the river serves as a water source for around 6 million people and supports wildlife and diverse ecosystems, from deserts to forests.
Like other waterways in the West, the river is suffering from decades of human overuse and mismanagement. About 80% of the water from the river is used to irrigate crops in both the U.S. and Mexico. The river has been used for irrigation for hundreds of years, since before the arrival of European settlers. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the river’s supply was divided up between states as well as the U.S. and Mexico; as the river got increasingly irrigated and diverted, the politics of its use became much more complex.
It’s not uncommon for portions of the river to dry up during the summer months, and the river usually goes through a few dry years before a wet season refills it. But the past few years have been particularly rough for the Rio Grande, rendering it a nearly unrecognizable muddy creek bed through stretches of New Mexico where it would normally still have water this time of year. It’s not just New Mexico seeing the impacts: In April, the river totally dried up for the first time on record in Big Bend National Park in Texas, officially reaching a level of 0 cubic feet per second and staying dry for most of May.
The Rio Grande is far from the only crucial waterway struggling in the West’s historic drought, the worst in 1,200 years that’s been supercharged by climate change. The Colorado River is reaching a crisis point thanks to overuse and drought, while important reservoirs along the river—most notably Lake Mead and Lake Powell—have also fallen to dramatic lows this year.