For a view into the river and its history, one of the best books out there is “From the Rio to the Sierra: An Environmental History of the Middle Rio Grande Basin.”
Published by the US Forest Service in 1998, Dan Scurlock’s report is full of data and references that offer insight into the historic Rio Grande and the people who have relied on its waters for centuries. His chronologies, which also cite historic letters, diaries, and business records, help readers envision the valley’s changes over time.
Here’s one from 1540:
Alvarado, another one of Coronado’s chroniclers, wrote this description of Tiguex Province (Isleta to near San Felipe): “This river of Nuestra Senora flows through a broad valley planted with fields of maize and dotted with cottonwood groves. There are twelve pueblos, whose houses are built with mud and are two stories high. They have a food supply of maize, beans, melons and turkeys in great abundance.
Between 1675 and 1710, he notes:
The pueblo and later land grant of Alameda was located on the west side of the Rio Grande. Sometime after this, and before 1769, the river shifted westward, leaving the village of Alameda on the west side of the Rio Grande.
And in the 1700s:
Santa Ana residents were using “boats made of logs from the Jemez Mountains tied with rawhide and sealed with a mixture of pinyon pitch and crushed bark” to cross the Rio Grande between their villages and agricultural fields east of the river. These craft were tied to “huge cottonwood trees on the east bank of the Rio Grande.” Near these fields, the “farmers built small huts of cottonwood, in which they stored their tools and supplies.”
Scurlock describes species no longer found in and around the river, including blue catfish in the Espanola-Santa Fe area (1692); the continuous cottonwood forest that stretched from Alameda to south of where downtown Albuquerque is today (1600s-1706); and the lakes and marshes that once existed near the present-day Albuquerque neighborhood of Barelas. In 1827, Anglo trappers “harvested” beavers on a float trip from Cochiti to El Paso and a few years later, cotton was being grown in El Paso, Tome, and Bernalillo.
Scurlock also notes farming practices in the valley; here’s an entry he notes from 1870:
(to early 1900s) Santa Clara farmers selected field sites of sandy loam. Alkaline or clayey soils were avoided. New fields were cleared of rocks and smaller trees, and weeds were pulled or burned. Large trees and boulders were left in the fields. Santa Clara farmers treated their agricultural seeds with “blue stone,” a wild plant ground and mixed with indigenous species, to protect them from insects and worms and to stimulate growth. Ashes were sometimes sprinkled around pumpkin plants as an insecticide.
If you can’t get your hands on a bound copy, there’s a PDF of Scurlock’s report, “From the Rio to the Sierra: An Environmental History of the Middle Rio Grande Basin” online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr005.pdf