Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.

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Turtle's Hunt for Gold, Day 8

Richard "Turtle" Tetu explains the details of his dredging operation to Hugh Fitzsimons. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Because of the Rio Grande’s high flows giving us the ability to float 30 miles in a day, Erich and I were able to spend one more day in South Fork. We spent the time preparing for the water politics of the San Luis Valley and checking out a bit more of the West Fork Complex Fire.

Hugh Fitzsimons, one of the backers of this expedition, and his son, Patrick, joined me for a trip into the burned hills.

There we met one of the locals who is carrying on one of the longest traditions in this valley: Hunting for gold.

Richard Tetu has developed his own solar powered dredge and was testing it out on a stream that drained into the Rio Grande.

“I don’t know anything,” he said.  “I’m just learning. But once I find gold I won’t have to learn anymore.”

Tetu goes by the name Turtle, a nickname he said he picked up while tripping on acid with a friend.

Now living in South Fork, he gets into the hills as much as he can to mess around in the creeks.  Even after the fire, he said the beauty he found surprised him.  He would happily work until the sun set.

On the drive up, Hugh, Patrick and I stopped to check out some cattle that were grazing in the burn.

Hugh, who grew up raising cattle and has since switched over to bison, was impressed with the shine of the cow’s coats and how full their bodies were. Dining on the fresh green grass that was pushing up through the soot and lounging in the mountain sunshine, they seemed to be as happy as Turtle messing around in the streams.

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.

While making his way to the Gulf of Mexico, Colin will be periodically activating a device that uses satellite technology to share his current location. Use this map to see where he traveled on this day.

Check-In Time of Check-In (CST) Latitude Longitude
#1 11:50 a.m. 37.60476 -106.8264


To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.

He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.

The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.

The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.


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