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Rio Bosque Park History

Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is a 372-acre City of El Paso park located in southeast El Paso county near the town of Socorro, Texas.  The park is enclosed by irrigation canals and drains on three sides, and the western boundary of the park lies adjacent to the Rio Grande, which forms the international border between the U.S. and Mexico in this area.  

Along with the rest of the river valley, the landscape at Rio Bosque has changed dramatically over the years.  Before the channelization of the Rio Grande in the mid-1930s, a wide bend in the river wound through what is today the park.  Most of the future park was in Mexico.  When the river was channelized, a 277-acre parcel within the old river bend switched from being Mexican territory to U.S. territory.  
The U.S. government administered this parcel until 1973.  Then, under the Federal Lands to Parks program, it was conveyed to the City of El Paso and became Rio Bosque Park.  Three years later, the U.S. government conveyed another 9 acres to the City under the same program.   The City later added 86 acres of City land to the park to bring it to its current size of 372 acres.  

Rio Bosque Park, June 23, 1981

Early plans for Rio Bosque envisioned a mix of undeveloped open space and developed recreational facilities, but the City lacked the funds to carry out these plans.  Over time, the idea of managing the entire area as a natural area and educational resource gained favor.  Still, funding limitations kept the City from fully realizing these dreams.  

In 1980, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested constructing wetlands at the park and using treated wastewater to maintain them.  This promising idea wasn’t implemented then, but it wasn’t forgotten either.
In 1990, Congress authorized the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) to build the American Canal Extension.   Today, this concrete-lined canal extends along the river from downtown El Paso to the Rio Bosque vicinity.  
As a federally funded water project, the American Canal Extension had to include mitigation to offset loss of wildlife habitat due to building the canal.  Studies indicated creation of a 30-acre wetland would be appropriate.  The recommended site was Rio Bosque Park.  

When the IBWC began work on the canal, it also began planning for a wetland project at Rio Bosque.  Through the Rio Grande Compact Commission, it enlisted the help of Ducks Unlimited (DU) to design and plan the project.  DU quickly saw the potential of Rio Bosque for more than a 30-acre wetland.  It designed a project involving the whole park, a project the IBWC and the City of El Paso embraced.  

The project involved re-building the old river channel through the park and creating a system for diverting water from this channel into a series of large shallow wetland cells.  

The water would not come from the Rio Grande, though.  Rather it would be treated wastewater from the adjacent Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant.  El Paso Water Utilities and El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 agreed to make this water available to the park when it wasn't being used for irrigated agriculture.  
As planning for the project moved forward, the need to ensure its long-term management became paramount.  In November 1996, the City of El Paso and UTEP signed a 30-year agreement for UTEP to manage the site.  

The IBWC built the wetland project in 1997, and the Rio Bosque landscape again changed.  Water returned to the landscape.  At the same time, large areas were cleared and graded to build the wetland complex and the water-delivery system.  

Wetland Cell 2, Rio Bosque Park, early 1998

Today, the landscape continues to change.  Slowly in some areas, more rapidly in others, vegetation is reclaiming the cleared areas.  As it does, UTEP and its partners are working to guide and shape this recovery to promote native river-valley plant communities.  Their goal: recreate an approximation of the wonderfully rich mosaic of habitats characteristic of the Rio Grande and its floodplain in pre-settlement days.