It is projected that the Rio Grande-Bravo (RGB) will face significant precipitation declines in the future as a result of climate change. Of the four major basins in the Western U.S., the Rio Grande is facing the largest climate-change water-supply deficit (relative to historical record). Understanding how complex coupled human and natural systems (CHANS) function in watersheds that face dramatic social and climatological pressures can help ecologists plan for conservation needs in the face of these pressures. For instance, while climate change patterns are viewed as central drivers for “permanent drought” in the RGB, human use of in-stream water, esp. the estimated ~80% of the RGB used to irrigate agriculture, has contributed to ecosystem degradation and threats to species and habitats for the last century. The RGB Basin has seen ecosystem-conservation battles often taking place in discrete reaches of the river system which may or may not be socially, politically, economically, or, even, hydrologically linked to the threatened ecosystem. While traditional approaches to defining ecosystem boundaries have traditionally focused on the physical and biological systems, a CHANS approach to ecosystem threat in the Anthropocene demands a substantially broader understanding of the impact of human teleconnections on these ecosystems.
We present findings from over 8 months of ethnographic research in the RGB Basin examining how resource managers and users perceive 1) local ecosystems, 2) local human needs, and 3) upstream and downstream ecosystems and human needs. We show how a range of different cognitive, social, political, and economic priorities, perspectives, and models among actors create insulated actor networks that contribute to the fragmented management of the RGB. We demonstrate how, while actors throughout the RGB Basin insist that they are not only aware of but also actively engaged in water conservation efforts, few conservation efforts result in teleconnected net benefits for threatened ecosystems that exist outside of “local” geographical spaces. We show how the fragmentation of the RGB impacts ecosystems, hydrological flows, and human wellbeing beyond immediate, “local” contexts and how actors throughout the RGB Basin rationalize their disconnections from upstream and downstream communities. We conclude by showing how approaches to conservation ecology focused on discrete species in geographically-bounded ecosystems fail to account for fragmented management decisions and the geographic space in which conservation governance can and should occur. Integrating teleconnected understandings of human systems with discrete ecosystem conservation challenges can contribute to understanding novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene.