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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Alamosa and the Wildlife Refuge, Day 17

Ian Rich, Cathy Morin and Badger float on the Rio Grande as it passes by the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Today I paddled with Cathy Morin, Ian Rich and their dog through the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge.

This is a reach of river where burrowing owls fly out from their homes in the dirt river banks, Canada geese dive underwater to escape paddlers, and cows give the humans an evil eye as they float by.  Although it is a gorgeous section to paddle, it rarely sees visitors.

We were lucky to catch the river during high flows, so we had a rare opportunity to float along with a decent current through flat farmland.  Colorado is currently releasing water to New Mexico to make sure it complies with the Rio Grande Compact.

Morin and Rich moved to the San Luis Valley years ago to escape the crowds on the East Slope of Colorado, north of Denver.

Rich is the only internationally certified orchid judge in the valley and is a FedEx delivery driver.  Morin has retired from a career in nutrition research and education and serves on various boards across the valley. Together they run a turkey farm where customers come every year just before Thanksgiving to help with the processing.

Although water use is not paramount to their operation, Morin has started attending water meetings. The politics are complicated and not always easy to follow, she said. But decisions about groundwater — how much can be pumped, by whom and at what times — affect both the river and the whole valley.

She wants to stay informed and keep the decision makers honest.

She also just likes the rural character of the San Luis Valley and loves to paddle. So that’s what we did.

Side note:  The signs around Alamosa give an insight into the character of the town. Fight back if a mountain lion attacks you and be cautious around the golfers. And please keep your potbelly pig on a leash. I took pictures in case you do not believe me.

Side note 2:  I had my first positive E. coli test yesterday with a water sample taken under a bridge in downtown Alamosa.  I later learned that this site is a popular bathroom stop for the homeless who pass through town.

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Air temperature (°C)
Conductivity (µS/cm)
Depth of Measurement (meters)
Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
E. coli colonies per 100 ml
pH level
Secchi disk transparency (meters)
Water temperature (°C)

What do these numbers mean?

As they travel, Colin and Erich are taking water samples for the following periodic water quality tests. In partnership with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment’s Texas Stream Team Program at Texas State University, the results will be added to a public database it helps maintain for research and monitoring water quality.

Air/Water Temperature
Temperature impacts everything from the amount of oxygen in the water and the metabolism of aquatic species to how easily compounds dissolve. Most species can tolerate slow seasonal changes but can go into thermal stress or shock when temperatures change by more than one or two degrees Celsius in 24 hours.
pH Level
The pH scale measures water’s acidity and runs on a logarithmic scale from 1.0 to 14.0, with 7.0 considered neutral. Anything below 7 is acidic and anything above is basic. A pH range of 6.5 to 8.2 is optimal for most organisms.
Dissolved Oxygen
Oxygen is just as vital for life below the surface as it is above. The amount needed varies according to species and stage of life, but generally 5.0 to 6.0 milligrams per liter is required for growth and activity. Levels bellow 3.0 mg/L are stressful to most fish species and levels below 2.0 mg/L for an extended period of time will cause fish kills.
Conductivity levels depend mainly on how easily the rocks and soils a stream passes through dissolve. For example, high levels of conductivity are often found with water that passes through limestone and gypsum because it will pick up the calcium, carbonate and sulfate from those rock formations. However, discharges into a water body, such as a failing sewage system, can also raise the conductivity because of the presence of chloride, phosphate and nitrate.
Water Clarity
Turbid water can come from high levels of sediment or plankton. Both will block sunlight to aquatic plants and the sediments can carry pollution such as nutrients and pesticides. Low levels of turbidity may indicate a healthy and well-functioning ecosystem. High levels can be an indicator of runoff from eroding soils or blooms of microscopic plankton due to high levels of nutrients.
E. coli
E. coli bacteria are found in the colon of warm-blooded animals. If the pathogen is found in water it’s an indicator that fecal mater from humans, pets, livestock or wildlife is also present and may pose a public health threat. For drinking water the standard is to have no E. coli. But almost all non-treated water has some E. coli in it and at low levels it does not represent a substantial health threat to those who swim or wade in it. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the water quality standard for these types of activities at 126 colony forming units per 100 mL.
Secchi disk transparency
The Secchi disk is a plain white, circular disk used to measure water transparency in bodies of water. It is lowered into the water of a lake or other water body until it can be no longer seen. This depth of disappearance, called the Secchi disk transparency, is a conventional measure of the transparency of the water.

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 9:01 a.m. 37.47028 -105.86089
#2 9:41 a.m. 37.45938 -105.84195
#3 12:40 p.m. 37.36952 -105.76721
#4 1:50 p.m. 37.35099 -105.75449
#5 5:57 p.m. 37.30841 -105.73825


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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