Campgrounds are closed, but in this era of social distancing, solitary anglers and small groups of families and friends are heading to the river for safe outdoor recreation.

On weekends along the Río Grande in the Orilla Verde stretch of Río Grande del Norte National Monument north of Pilar, nearly every pullout is occupied by folks fishing.

Some may have a chance to catch and release the elusive Río Grande cutthroat trout.

Cutthroats are in the río largely due to the efforts of Trout Unlimited, a national conservation organization with deep roots in local communities.

Recently, Trout Unlimited secured instream water rights on a stream in San Miguel County. Its application to the Office of the State Engineer is only the second of its kind ever approved.

In December, Audubon New Mexico, a regional and national bird conservation nonprofit, made history when it won OSE approval for a five-year lease for instream water rights on a tributary of the Chama River.

Historically, the concept of instream flow -- allowing water to preserve the uses and values of individual rivers -- is not new. It's the rationale behind protecting endangered fish in the Middle Río Grande and on the Pecos.

Kristina Eckhart, spokesperson for the Office of State Engineer, said that a 1998 opinion of the New Mexico Attorney General "recognized instream flow as a beneficial use of water," but that Audubon New Mexico's application "was the first instream flow application approved by the OSE."

Taos News met with angler Toner Mitchell to discuss instream flow, the value of improving rural economies, the iconic cutthroat trout and Trout Unlimited's Taos Pueblo youth program. Mitchell has served nine years as TU's New Mexico Water and Habitat Program director.

The following excerpt was edited for length.

TU has broad areas of conservation: water management, watershed restoration, fisheries management, land management and development. What does your work on the ground look like in Taos County?

TU has four main planks: protect, sustain, restore and reconnect. TU's Sportsman's Conservation Program is more of an advocacy (protect) program, while the Western Water Program focuses mainly on restore and reconnect.

Generally, in Taos County, we do the restore and reconnect part. For example, through our work with the village of Questa, we've worked to restore the Red River, and out of that effort grew the necessity of making the river part of a new economy for the village because of the closure of the mine.

I've been an environmentalist all my life. And definitely a fisherman and definitely a trout geek. But what I realized with the Questa experience was that these rural communities lie in our best trout waters, in our best habitat, in our best vistas. In Questa, I gained a real appreciation for the fact that the viability of a rural community is proportionate to the health of the environment.

I'm finding that the level of trust between lots of communities needs to be lifted a great deal for us to be able to achieve some of the environmental outcomes that we want.

Fish need water. And water is over-appropriated in New Mexico. So what does the over-appropriation of water mean for trout?

We can't get to that, the environmental aspect, without the human aspect. Because we're going to have to move water from where it is to where it's needed. And for trout, that's into the stream. Relationships do need to be built.

The Río Grande cutthroat trout is our state fish. We're trying like crazy to keep it off the endangered species list. Because then a whole bunch of other stuff comes in that you don't want to have to deal with.

I caught my first cutthroat trout in Talpa when I was a kid. My grandparents are from Talpa. And there used to be cutthroat in the Río Chiquito. A lot of them. And now they're at the tippy top of the drainage. And they're barely hanging on.

So having experienced this fish as a child, I know that today's children do not recognize the fish. It's been really detached from the culture. So part of my work is to reintroduce our culture with its biological or animal talisman, if you will. Traditional families have been stewarding this land for so long. This is their native fish.

Can you tell us more about TU and instream water rights?

TU's application was to change the point of diversion from a tributary to Gallinas Creek above Las Vegas, called Trout Springs. It's a beautiful springs that just comes out of the rock on the south end of an east-west running river and flows entirely on the property of a family. I used to play soccer with the son.

TU and some other organizations are trying to establish a precedent that water transactions for instream purposes would be approved. So TU undertook to set up a lease with this family so they can just let the water run.

On a purely practical level it is great to have tools like this. For example, there are a lot of landowning agricultural families that might not be able to farm but who want to keep their water rights. If a family or a landowner wanted to keep their water rights, and especially so if there was a drought and it would cost more to exercise their water right than to just leave the water in the stream, it would be great for them to have that option.

Does TU have outreach or youth programs in the area?

Our Taos chapter just started our Trout in the Classroom program in Taos Pueblo (though on hold during the pandemic). Trout in the Classroom is usually a program for middle school students, but I've heard it done in Albuquerque with even first- and second-graders, also high school programs. Basically, students are given a big 50-gallon tank and a bunch of eggs from New Mexico Game and Fish. They hatch them, they grow the baby trout to fingerling size, and then they are released into a public fishing water.

Around this, teachers can develop art programs, writing programs and, of course, it's all about science. The students are raising rainbow trout, which is a nonnative species, but we're hoping at some point to shift to native cutthroats. Taos Pueblo is so active in protecting and restoring its Río Grande cutthroat populations that that might be a shift that would be taken, but I don't think anyone has the capacity to do that right now.

What are the best fishing waters in Taos County?

The Río Grande. Oh, gosh, yes. I've fished around the world and this is still it for me. I mean obviously there is the sentimental thing, but the wildlife, the view and the fishing can be very humbling, and it can be very great.

And we've been stocking Río Grande cutthroat in the río for the past several years, and they probably get eaten by the browns and the northern pike, but I'm starting to catch them down in Pilar. We stock them at La Junta and up, so for them to be down in Pilar, that was a big surprise. I also got one near the Colorado state line. These fish were 10 to 12 inches. And we put them in at fingerling size.

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