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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Rebuilding the River, Day 12

Old cars are used to stabilize the river bank on the Rio Grande west of Del Norte. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Using junk cars to stop a riverbank from eroding is a well-established practice across the United States.

It can be very effective.  I found the cars pictured above on my paddle into Del Norte. They have served as a local landmark for decades.

But there are alternatives. Heather Dutton is the executive director of The Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project.  Her job is to help the river get back to a more natural state.

“If we can make the river as healthy as possible then it will be as resilient as possible,” she said.

Instead of straightening rivers, Dutton supports projects to work with the river's twists and turns and replace riprap with willows and cottonwoods.

Rather than a straight channel that will erode anything that gets in its way, a curved stream can help slow floods and will absorb water to be released in dry times. The trees will pull water out of the river, but they also provide shade to keep the water cool and reduce evaporation. Most of all, the vegetation keeps the riverbanks wet so the water that is added to the river stays in it instead of being sucked out.

That is a service the local irrigation companies like and why they support her work.

It helps that Dutton’s family goes back five generations in the San Luis Valley, she knows her way around a farm and her father runs one of the largest potato farms in the valley.

Heather has been so successful she was asked to help out with one of the most sacred structures in the valley: a diversion dam.

The McDonald Ditch has one of the oldest water rights on the Rio Grande, meaning when there is almost no water left, they can take it.

Because of that, the water right is one of the most valuable in the valley. The dam that pushes water into the ditch is a mixture of cement, steel beams, rocks and wood.

Every few years a bulldozer has to go into the river to reshape it.

Because of the exposed rebar, it is one of the most dangerous places to float on the Rio Grande and it’s difficult for fish to travel. The structure also makes the river chew away at the right bank. It eroded so much that a telephone company moved its pole three times to stop it from toppling into the river.  

“It was not working for anybody,” Dutton said while giving a tour of the site.

With help from the county, state and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Dutton has organized a project that will reroute the river so it does not eat away at the right bank, make fish and boat passage easier and provide farmers on the McDonald ditch with a more efficient way to get water.  

It’s the kind of work that can’t be accomplished by dumping car bodies in the river.

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


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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