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Rio Grande: Past, Present, Future

Join the Branigan Cultural Center on Saturday, November 22 at 12pm for a lecture given by Dr. Fred Phillips. Dr. Phillips is a professor of Hydrology at New Mexico Tech, and was the 2001 recipient of the Meinzer Award, the most prestigious award in the Hydrology field. Dr. Phillips will be discussing impacts on the Rio Grande River, and its future. This lecture is part of a larger series tying into the Desert Air and Fragile Waters, traveling exhibitions.

The Rio Grande Valley receives the large majority of its water supply, both surface and groundwater, from its headwaters in Colorado and northern New Mexico.  They constitute a small fraction of the drainage basin.  This hydrological reality imposes severe constraints on the potential supply of water for the inhabitants of the Rio Grande Valley.  For most of its history, the inhabitants accommodated themselves to the flood-and-drought vagaries of the river, modifying it in only very minor ways.  This changed with the incursion of railroads in New Mexico in the 1870’s.  The effects of access to distant markets and to modern engineering technology resulted in changes to the Rio Grande that by the middle of the 20th century made it scarcely recognizable as the same river that had existed 100 years prior.  In many cases, the changes were not intentional, but rather arose from unforeseen outcomes of economic activities.  We have now reached the point where water utilization is a zero-sum game.  If water is to be put to new uses, it has to be taken away from an existing user.  Water availability is the constraining limitation on human activity in the Rio Grande Valley.  The question for the 21st century is whether the inhabitants of the Valley will continue to reallocate the water to satisfy blindly accepted societal goals, and suffer the inevitable unintended consequences, or whether they will recognize the limiting role of water supply and try to direct water use toward achieving the best quality of life possible within the water limitation.

Fred M. Phillips is a Professor of Hydrology and Director of the Hydrology Program in the Department of Earth & Environmental Science at New Mexico Tech in Socorro.  His undergraduate degree in Earth Science is from UC Santa Cruz and he earned a Ph.D. in hydrology from the University of Arizona in 1981.  Current research interests include environmental tracers in surface water and groundwater, paleoclimate and paleohydrology, surface-exposure dating using cosmogenic nuclides, tectonic geomorphology, and the interactions of social and hydrological systems in the southwestern U.S.

Desert Air, a traveling exhibition opening at the Branigan Cultural Center on Friday, November 7, showcases photographs taken by renowned National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz. Desert Air is the first comprehensive photographic collection of the world’s “extreme deserts,” which receive less than four inches of precipitation per year. A number of family and adult programs will accompany the exhibit, imparting visitors with a better understanding of how desert ecosystems impact the world that we live in. Lectures by historian Dr. Garcia-Bryce will provide a look into how different cultures have made deserts their home. Family workshops with demonstrate the challenges that taking aerial photographs can represent, as well as the impact that light can have on the desert environment. There will also be other events such as a book club, and docents lead tours of the exhibit. For a full list of activities, see our webpage or facebook.

The Branigan Cultural Center is located at 501 North Main Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 4:30pm. For more information, contact the Branigan Cultural Center at (575) 541-2154 or visit the Center’s website at

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