El Paso residents rally to protect a Rio Grande wetland

Potential routes for a highway in El Paso’s Mission Valley run alongside a restored wetland called Rio Bosque. Environmental advocates are urging TxDOT to scrap the idea.

By Martha Pskowski, Inside Climate NewsMay 16, 2024 9:15 am,

From Inside Climate News:

EL PASO—Dozens of people crammed into a conference room on the eastern edge of El Paso on a recent Thursday evening. Some brought signs, some wore T-shirts, others diligently wrote their feedback on notecards. But the message was resounding: Don’t build a highway near our wetland.

Conservation advocates in El Paso say the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) should steer clear of the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park as it considers potential highway expansion in southeast El Paso County. TxDOT is in the early planning phase to improve mobility in the Mission Valley. A corridor study identified three possible routes to extend a highway through the area. All three routes run alongside the Rio Bosque, a 372-acre park managed by the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) and the local water utility, El Paso Water.

The idea has elicited an uproar among El Paso residents who treasure the restored wetland ecosystem at Rio Bosque. Wetlands lined the Rio Grande in El Paso before a series of engineering projects straightened the river and encased the riverbed in concrete. But beginning in the 1990s, UTEP led a group of local conservationists who revived a dried-out river bend to make the Rio Bosque park. The wetland ecosystem now attracts hundreds of bird species and local universities rely on the park for fieldwork.

Rocio Ronquillo (center) voices her opposition to TxDOT’s proposed expansion of the Loop 375 Border Highway through the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park on May 2. Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune/Inside Climate News

Rio Bosque is one of a handful of wetlands restoration projects along the Rio Grande in Southern New Mexico and West Texas, which environmental scientists compare to a “string of pearls” that improves wildlife connectivity across the region.

Conservation advocate Jon Rezendes said a highway next to Rio Bosque would be a “death trap” for birds and flying insects. “It will functionally kill Rio Bosque,” he said.

Transportation is the second-biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Texas after industry, accounting for about a third of emissions. Carbon emissions from vehicles in Texas are steadily increasing. Texas is increasing funding for highways, with the most recent budget appropriating $32.7 billion for state highway projects.

But both in Texas and nationwide, the role of highways is being re-examined. Residents have organized against highway expansions in cities like Houston and Austin, and federal transportation agencies are addressing the legacy of highways that pass through communities of color. In El Paso, TxDOT has studied the possibility of extending the Border Highway, which runs through south-central and southeast El Paso along the border wall, further east since the 1990s. But the latest iteration of the study has sparked spirited opposition from conservation advocates.

TxDOT says the area needs more road capacity. But El Pasoans are calling for alternatives that don’t impact Rio Bosque and other historical and cultural sites in the area.

Jennifer Wright, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s El Paso office, said that if a project comes out of the corridor study, it will take years to secure funding and go through the permitting process.

For now, she said, the concept maps are nothing more than ideas from engineers about what options would be “reasonable and feasible” to address traffic issues in the area. She said there is no “imminent threat” to Rio Bosque.

El Paso lost its wetlands — until Rio Bosque

When the city of El Paso took ownership of Rio Bosque in 1973, it was a dry patch of land overtaken by invasive saltcedar trees. But local conservationists had a vision: to restore the wetlands that once lined the banks of the Rio Grande.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seasonal floods on the Rio Grande caused widespread damage in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, its Mexican sister city. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War established the river as the international border in 1848. But the river changed course with each flood season, flummoxing officials trying to map the official boundary.

To prevent floods, improve irrigation and solidify the international boundary, the meandering Rio Grande through El Paso-Juárez was straightened and encased in concrete between the 1880s and the 1930s. “There are few river systems in the world that have experienced such massive transformation so rapidly,” wrote a group of environmental scientists in a 2023 paper.

University of Texas at Austin environmental historian C.J. Alvarez, who studies construction on the border, calls the Rio Grande through El Paso and Ciudad Juárez “more damaged, more manipulated, and more engineered” than any other section of the 1,900-mile long river.

The free-flowing Rio Grande was transformed into a channel dedicated to farm irrigation.

The bends and oxbows of the river were eliminated. The wetlands along the river’s banks dried out.

The Rio Bosque land occupied one of those old, dried-out river bends.

John Sproul, manager of the Rio Bosque Park (right), works with a group of students from Jefferson High School carrying cut branches of invasive saltcedar to be disposed of in the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park.
Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune/Inside Climate News

The idea to create a wetland at Rio Bosque got off the ground in the late 1990s. UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management signed on to manage the site. John Sproul has served as the park’s manager ever since, now with the help of assistant park manager Sergio Samaniego, a UTEP graduate.

Their biggest challenge is securing water to fill the wetlands, especially in dry years like 2023, when El Paso only received 4.34 inches of rain, about half of the average annual precipitation. El Paso Water provides treated wastewater from its nearby treatment plant. The park also gets irrigation water from the Rio Grande and relies on wells.

But the hard work is paying off and native vegetation like Rio Grande cottonwoods and Goodding’s willows are now well-established. Birds have flocked to the park, which the border fence separates from the Rio Grande. Threatened species like the western yellow-billed cuckoo, which migrates from Central and South America and had not been sighted for years in El Paso, was first spotted at Rio Bosque in 2007. It’s become a popular spot for birders who keep a running list online of their sightings.

“Any effort, no matter how small, to remind people what it would look like to rewild the place—to look back in time before the big engineering projects—is a good thing,” Alvarez said.

Growing pains in the Mission Valley

While the Rio Bosque wetlands was taking shape in the late 1990s, transportation planners were also eying the area. TxDOT completed a feasibility study in 1997 that laid out conceptual designs for a highway stretching 20 miles between the Zaragoza bridge—two miles north of Rio Bosque — and the border crossing at Fabens, Texas. That first study references Rio Bosque and the “proposed wetlands preserve.”

The study sat dormant for years. TxDOT revisited the study in 2013 and 2014 to create an updated Border Highway East Corridor Study. The conceptual route for the highway ran northeast of Rio Bosque. During public comments in 2013, numerous people urged TxDOT to move the highway further away from Rio Bosque.

Meanwhile, the communities around Rio Bosque were changing. Farmland was gradually being developed for housing, bringing more cars to the area’s aging roads. Commercial truck traffic from Juárez into El Paso at the Ysleta-Zaragoza International Bridge steadily increased. By 2020, there were over 587,000 truck crossings into El Paso at the bridge, up 52 percent from 2010.

The elevated section of Loop 375 Border Highway between the border wall and Rio Grande near downtown El Paso, Texas. TxDOT is studying the possibility of extending the highway near the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park in El Paso, Texas with alternative elevated designs proposed similar to the one shown.
Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune/Inside Climate News

“With the increase in population and commercial traffic and activity at the port of entry, the congestion is getting worse and worse,” said Iliana Holguin, county commissioner for Precinct 3, which includes Socorro and the Lower Valley. “We have tremendous mobility needs in that area but we also have to protect the resources that are there.”

El Paso’s Mission Valley is named for the area’s three original Spanish missions: Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario. Ysleta is now within the El Paso city limits, just north of Rio Bosque, and Socorro and San Elizario are municipalities south of the park. Socorro, the area’s first mission, was founded in 1682.

The valley is also El Paso’s most important agricultural area, fed by the Rio Grande. It is also home to Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, one of three federally recognized tribes in Texas. Also known as Tigua Pueblo, its members were displaced from what is now New Mexico in the 1600s and resettled on their current lands.

TxDOT’s concepts also have the highway passing by the Tigua’s tribal lands. The Tribal Council did not respond to a request for comment on TxDOT’s corridor study.

“[Rio Bosque] is a place of prayer, a place to have peace,” said Andrea Everett, a member of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and environmental scientist. “It is the last place that actually looks like when our ancestors were displaced here in 1680.”

Everett, who studied the impacts of environmental change on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in her graduate studies at UTEP, said that Rio Bosque is an important place for her and her family to connect with their ancestors and the riparian ecosystem that once surrounded their tribal lands.

“We’re already an urban tribe but we’re trying to hold on to what we have,” she said.

A bird watcher at the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park. Earlier in the day TxDOT held a public comment meeting on expanding the Loop 375 Border Highway next to the park.
Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune/Inside Climate News

‘A rewilding success story’

Jon Rezendes fell in love with El Paso and its mountains while serving in the military at Fort Bliss. After leaving the military, Rezendes and his wife and children stayed in the desert city. Rezendes started taking his kids to Rio Bosque, where they would watch for birds and explore miles of dirt trails.

“Rio Bosque is a true rewilding success story,” Rezendes said, referring to the process of increasing biodiversity and restoring the natural processes of an ecosystem, including the reintroduction of native species. “For me the idea of returning the land to its natural state in any way we can is beautiful.”

Rezendes learned about the corridor study, and as a volunteer with local conservation groups, he spread the word about TxDOT public meetings held the first week of May. He attended a meeting on May 2 wearing a Protect Rio Bosque t-shirt and said he will keep fighting until TxDOT abandons the idea.

During the public meeting, concept maps were rolled out on tables and participants voiced their opposition on sticky notes affixed to the maps: “We need public transportation,” one read. “Wouldn’t the completion of a border bike system be awesome?” read another.

Sticky notes voicing opposition to TxDOT’s proposed expansion of the Loop 375 Border Highway through the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park in El Paso.
Justin Hamel for The Texas Tribune/Inside Climate News

Wright, TxDOT’s spokesperson, said public transportation is not currently included in the concepts.

UTEP declined to make Rio Bosque staff available for interviews. While TxDOT’s conceptual routes do not directly cut onto the park property, two routes lay just northeast of the park and the third to the southwest of the park, between its boundaries and the border fence. The Rio Bosque newsletter for April alerted supporters to the risks if a highway is built in this buffer zone, stating that the buffer provides “an avenue for wildlife movement between the park and other areas.”

El Paso Water, which helps manage the park, came out against the three concepts from TxDOT’s study, saying a highway could impact the utility’s nearby wastewater treatment plant and Rio Bosque. In a statement, the utility said all three options would “pose serious environmental threats” to Rio Bosque.

Rio Bosque “is also one of the few and unique public open spaces in the Lower Valley where families can enjoy trails, go bird watching, and learn what El Paso looked like prior to modern development,” said Gilbert Trejo, the utility’s vice president of operations.

TxDOT project manager Gus Sanchez said he and his colleagues heard the feedback in 2014 and moved the potential routes to go around Rio Bosque and not cross the property. Opponents say even if the highway does not cross Rio Bosque property, wildlife will be in danger and noise and light pollution would fundamentally change the park.

“We’re constrained because we have Rio Bosque on the south side and neighborhoods on the north side,” Sanchez explained. “It’s not like we can move it a half-mile north.”

Wright said there are models for creating wildlife crossings that TxDOT has used in other locations. She referenced crossings for ocelots in South Texas as one example. Once a specific design is completed, the project would be subject to further review, including one to ensure it complies with the National Environmental Protection Act.

“We’re not interested in destroying habitat,” Wright said. “[Rio Bosque] is clearly a treasured element in our city. But we need to take a look.”

If the vigorous debate at public meetings this month is any indication, the fight for Rio Bosque is only getting started. For many in this border city, the 372-acre park is more than a place to go birding or hiking: it’s a symbol of the river ecosystem that was lost and recovered and, with enough will, might be preserved for future generations.