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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The Valley From the Air, Day 10

Crop circles carpet the floor of the San Luis Valley and line the edges of the Rio Grande, supplied with water from the aquifer that is filled by the river. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

We spent Saturday morning in two Piper Cub airplanes looking down at the San Luis Valley.

Erich had a blast as he and pilot Jay Sarason swept over the valley and around the foothills to get the right angle for Erich to shoot photos.  Pilot Bob Johnson would have loved to have taken me as far out as the Great Sand Dunes National Park and I wanted to go. My stomach, however, really wanted me to be on the ground.

Still, what we saw from the air made it obvious there was competition for water. We saw a solar farm and a few towns, but the valley floor is dominated by crop circles.

In a wet year the San Luis Valley will get eight inches of rain a year. It is a desert at 7,000 feet above sea level. If it were not for irrigation, the valley would be mostly brown with a few ribbons of green where the Rio Grande and its tributaries flow.

Thanks to wells, pumps and center pivot irrigation, the valley floor is dotted with more than 2,000 circles where alfalfa, potatoes and wheat flourish.  If you drink Coors, the barley most likely came from one of these 120-acre circles.

With such little rain and a deep aquifer that extends across the entire valley, farmers have almost total control of when and where moisture is applied to their fields. All they have to do is turn on the pump.

The problem is so many farmers have been turning on their pumps that the aquifer is dropping. It has lost more than 100,000 acre-feet every year for the last four years.  Since 1976, it has lost more than one million acre-feet, according to a report prepared for the Rio Grande Conservation District. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre with one foot of water.

Instead of feeding water into the Rio Grande, the aquifer is now so low, it is pulling water out.

This threatens Colorado’s ability to meet its obligations to deliver water to New Mexico. It reduces the amount of water available to those who have groundwater rights.  The threat is serious enough that the state engineer has threatened to shut down all of the wells until the aquifer recovers.

The Rio Grande Conservation District is working to create a program taxing farmers. The money from the tax would pay some farmers not to pump.  But there are not many takers so far.  The program cannot pay enough to compete with what farmers can earn growing crops, and by extension, lowering the aquifer.

So, right now, the valley is green, but the river is losing water.

Not as fast as I lost my breakfast, but still, it’s a problem.

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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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