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About the Rio Grande

The IBWC Clean Rivers Program collects water quality data throughout the Rio Grande Basin. This page provides some general information about the Rio Grande. Please see our Gallery for photos and video, and feel free to contact us for more information!

Big Bend Ranch State Park
The Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park, January 2010

The Rio Grande is the fifth longest river in the United States and among the top twenty in the world. It extends from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico (1,901 miles) and forms a 1,255 mile segment of the border between the United States and Mexico.

The Entire Rio Grande BasinThe entire Rio Grande/ Rio Bravo watershed covers an area approximately 924,300 square kilometers (335,000 square miles), with approximately half the watershed in the United States and the other half in Mexico. Roughly 50,000 square miles of the watershed are within Texas. The river runs 1,255 miles along the international boundary with Mexico. The study area of the USIBWC CRP Rio Grande Basin encompasses this international reach of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo from the New Mexico/ Texas/ Chihuahua border (El Paso/Cuidad Juarez area) to the Gulf of Mexico (Brownsville/ Matamoros area). For the purpose of coordination and planning, the USIBWC study area has been divided into four subbasins:

  • the Upper Sub-Basin extending from the New Mexico/ Texas state line downstream to International Amistad Reservoir,
  • the Pecos River Sub-Basin from the TX/NM state line to the confluence with the Rio Grande,
  • the Middle Sub-Basin from International Amistad Reservoir downstream to International Falcon Reservoir and including the Devil’s River, and
  • the Lower Sub-Basin from International Falcon Reservoir downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information on what a watershed is, visit Watershed 101.

Major Issues in the Binational Rio Grande Watershed

Communities along the border continue to face serious environmental challenges as the population on both sides of the border continues to grow.  Increased demands on our natural resources are most evident when discussing water issues and trying to secure a sustainable water supply to meet projected increases in population and commercial use while trying to find a balance with traditional uses such as agriculture.  The amount of water available in this region has already been determined through various treaties and agreements between the United States and Mexico and between states in both countries. 

Equally important is the quality of the water that is available to the region.  Water diverted for agricultural use has long been the primary use of water from the Rio Grande.  Seventy-five percent of the water is currently allotted for agriculture.  The concentration of dissolved solids can effect whether the water can be used for farming or drinking which can lead to increased costs for treatment of the water.  The Rio Grande supplies water that can be used by agriculture to farm lands without any treatment.  Various agencies and people in the community monitor the amount of dissolved solids in the river to ensure the water meets the state requirements and its designated uses.  Over the next fifty years, water used for irrigation is expected to decrease by about thirty-six percent through the use of  more water efficient technologies and assumed voluntary transfers of water (Texas Water Development Board, "Water for Texas: Summary of the Regional Water Plans").   

The Rio Grande is a major water supply for the border communities of Texas and for Mexico.   It is projected that municipal use will increase by one-hundred percent over the next fifty years and industrial use will increase by forty percent (Texas Water Development Board, "Water for Texas: Summary of the Regional Water Plans").  In El Paso, groundwater resources come from the Hueco and Mesilla Bolsons (www.epwu.org).  These bolsons provide 50% of the drinking water for the El Paso Water Utilities service area.  The other 50% comes from the Rio Grande. 

Current EPWU pumping in the HuecoBolson is conjunctively managed with its use of surface water.  Under a “full” river allocation, EPWU will minimize its pumping in the Hueco Bolson.  Under a “low” river allocation, or drought condition, EPWU will maximize its pumping of the Hueco Bolson.  Due to significant increases in the use of surface water, increased use of reclaimed water and a successful water conservation program, EPWU has dramatically reduced its pumping in the  Hueco Bolson over the past 20 years.  This has allowed groundwater levels in many parts of El Paso to have stabilized. 

Concerns of brackish water intrusion along the eastern portion of the Hueco Bolson wellfield have been addressed with the construction of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant in 2007.  This plant converts brackish water from the Hueco Bolson into a potable supply for the City of El Paso and Fort Bliss.  The plant has a design capacity of 27.5 million gallons per day (30,000 acre-feet per year).  Operation of the plant is consistent with the EPWU conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater. 

Effective management of the Hueco Bolson resource has allowed for the stabilization and recovery of declining groundwater levels and control of brackish water intrusion.  Long term sustainability of the Hueco Bolson is ensured using the conjunctive management approach of maximizing use of available surface water while preserving the Hueco as the supply source during times of drought or limited surface water allocation. 

Regional Water Planning is mandated for the State of Texas by the Texas State Legislature in 1997 through Senate Bill 1.  The City of El Paso is a member of the Far West Texas Regional Water Planning Group (Region E) along with six other Far West Texas Counties.  The 2011 Regional Water Plan includes an evaluation of current and future populations, water demands and available water supplies during drought of record conditions.  When future demands exceed available supplies, water management strategies are developed.  The Far West Texas Regional Water Plan is available using this link: 

www.twdb.state.tx.us/wrpi/rwp/3rdRound/2011_RWP/RegionE

On the American side of the Rio Grande, the population growth over the past ten years has increased by 15% in the El Paso area (www.census.gov).  In contrast, the Mexican population growth over the past ten years along the border has nearly doubled (www.utep.edu/txcr).  Estimates place 2015 as the year in which they will no longer be able to withdraw freshwater from the Hueco Bolson.  Ciudad Juarez is currently exploring options to supplement their water resources with water from the Rio Grande or from other ground/surface water sources.  Other communities downstream have had similar increases in population with some experiencing incredible population growths as high as 45%.  Their sole source of water in those communities is the Rio Grande, making water quantity and quality a paramount issue.

The complexities with water resource management in the Rio Grande are further complicated due to the international nature of the Rio Grande.  On the United States portion of the Rio Grande, Texas Surface Water Quality Standards are implemented to maintain water quality conditions that meet the "fishable and swimmable" expectations of the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA).  The Mexican government, in turn, has its own established water quality standards, which are not necessarily equivalent to those of the United States.  Section 303(d) of the CWA, lists impaired waterbodies that do not meet water quality standards, even after the minimum required levels of pollution control technologies have been implemented at known point sources.  Several segments in the Rio Grande Basin have been listed in the 303(d) list, however, this creates a problem, because U.S. discharges into the river are subject to U.S. standards and Mexican discharges are subject to Mexican standards.  The minimum required levels of pollution control technologies have not yet been implemented at known point sources along the Rio Grande.   A common set of standards agreed to by both countries should be considered in the case of international waters such as the Rio Grande.  The United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) continues to take action to address international water quality impairments and formulate solutions to those impairments through a binational effort.  For example, through grants from EPA, the USIBWC has joined with the Mexican Section of the IBWC (MxIBWC) in leading a facility planning effort in Mexican border communities to bring their wastewater system planning efforts to levels of certification by the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) and financing through the North American Development Bank (NADBank).  The planning efforts have led to the certification by the BECC of the wastewater system projects for Tamaulipas, Reynosa, Anapra, and numerous others.  The USIBWC has also expended considerable efforts in working and partnering with various state and local regulatory agencies having jurisdiction in matters concerning the protection of transboundary water quality issues.

As a result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the border area along the Rio Grande faces many challenges in the years to come.  The Rio Grande supplies water for drinking and irrigation uses for more that 6 million people and 2 million acres of land.  Both groundwater and surface water resources have become and remain seriously threatened by the border regions' rapid industrialization coupled with increased population explosions.  The availability of a relatively inexpensive labor force has brought rapid economic business growth along the border.  The majority of these businesses include the assembly plants commonly referred to as maquiladoras.  As the region continues to grow, some of the new residents establish themselves in unincorporated communities, known as colonias.  From El Paso to the Lower Rio Grande Valley near Harlingen, Texas, nearly 400,000 people live in colonias.  Even in the incorporated areas along the border, the infrastructure to adequately handle the environmental consequences of human and industrial waste generation and disposal is lacking.

The USIBWC continues to support and administer the Texas Clean Rivers Program for the Rio Grande Basin.  Water quality monitoring efforts play a key role in identifying problem areas along the Rio Grande that need further attention and study.  Solutions to problems can then be implemented.   

Major Water Quality Issues in the Rio Grande Basin in Texas

The state of Texas uses the data collected by the USIBWC Clean Rivers Program to assess the water quality of the waterbodies in the Rio Grande Basin and compare the data collected to the Texas Surface Water Quality Standards. Water bodies that exceed standards are listed on a "303d" list and referred to as "impaired". Read more about the TCEQ 303d List. In general, there are two major issues throughout the Rio Grande Basin: salinity and bacteria. You can find out more about the water quality of the Rio Grande Basin in our basin reports on the publications page.


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