Rio Grande: The River of Two Names

Historically, the Rio Grande might be one of the most important rivers in terms of the formation of the United States.

Today, it forms the border between the United States and Mexico, but in the 1830s, it flowed through three nations: the U.S., Mexico and what was then the independent Republic of Texas.

While Texas never actually controlled the Rio Grande as an independent republic, the river was an important part of its annexation by the United States, as Texas’ claim on the river was one step in the Lone Star State’s joining the Union.

What Other Names Does the Rio Grande Have?

Venture south of the river, and you won’t hear it referred to as the Rio Grande. Instead, Mexicans refer to it as the Rio Bravo, which translates to the furious river. If you’ve ever taken a look at the Rio Grande, the Mexican name makes perfect sense. The river is full of rapids and rocky terrain, making it impossible to navigate, and in recent years, it has seen its water supply dwindle, which compounds the situation. The Rio Grande is as deep as 59 feet in some spots, but in other areas, especially near major cities like Albuquerque, it has found itself running dry.

Why Is The Rio Grande So Important?

 Rio Grande River among the flat lands in Texas near the border of Mexico

Following its history with Texas and the Mexican-American War, the Rio Grande has played a major role in relations between the United States and Mexico. In the early 20th century, the Rio Grande was the source of a major dispute because of the area known as the Chamizal, a square mile of land that formed when heavy rains shifted the Rio Grande slightly to the south, resulting in land that was once part of Mexico shifting to the Texas side of the river.

The nations spent 60 years locked in a bitter dispute over the land, a completely unusable portion of farmland that had nonetheless become the home of several Texans. In the 1960s, however, the United States officially ceded the land back to Mexico, and the two nations worked to construct a concrete channel to force the Rio Grande back onto its original path.

In recent years, the river has served as another point of contention as the border situation between the United States and Mexico has worsened. Attempts to build a wall on the border between the two countries have been blocked by the river, as a 1970 treaty prevents either nation from building anything that obstructs the flow of the Rio Grande.

What Problems Has the Rio Grande Faced?

Like many rivers in the 20th century, the Rio Grande has endured more than its share of pollution. Mexico and the United States have attempted to clean it in the 21st century, but the effects of dumping sewage into it during previous decades are obvious. In 2018, it was named one of the most endangered rivers in the United States, marking a major problem for New Mexico and Colorado when the river turns north from the Mexican border.

What the Rio Grande’s future holds depends on whether the Southwestern United States and Mexico can cooperate to keep the river flowing properly. Without it, water issues could become a major problem for the Western United States in the not-too-distant future.