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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Searching for a New Solution, Day 28

River guide and advocate, Steve Harris stands next to a bus he used to shuttle clients with on the Rio Grande. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

During the drought of 1988, Rio Grande river guide Steve Harris had a realization: the river was a totally manipulated system.  The flows his business depended on were dictated not by winter snowpack, but by the upstream users of the river.

Steve started to study water policy and learn about what was going on in Colorado.  He made friends with the potato farmers in the San Luis Valley.  He worked with the feds to see if he could get more water for the spring flows from a groundwater project. He even got involved in issues downstream of his business based in Pillar.

More than anyone else, Steve is responsible for developing river guiding on the Rio Grande. In 1976, he started Far Flung Adventures on the model of guiding in Big Bend in the winter, doing trips on the Salt River in Arizona in the spring and then moving to the Rio Grande Gorge of New Mexico in the summer before returning to Big Bend. He was born and raised in Houston and had always wanted to paddle the Rio Grande.

In those first years, the river levels were high.  His guides could take tourists on a white knuckle run through the 15-mile reach of the Taos Box in less than two hours. Now, the same run usually takes a full day if it is not split into an overnight float.

Steve jokes the rafting industry of the Rio Grande was developed under false pretenses. The flows of the 1980s simply don’t exist anymore.

Uncle Steve — as river guides, water policy wonks and legislators up and down the river now know him — has become one of the leading Rio Grande advocates in the state. He used to think the Endangered Species Act was going to be the tool to force change in how the Rio Grande was used and keep it flowing.

But after a decade of seeing how the court system worked, he has moved on to a new theory.

He pointed out that in every community we will pass through, there is someone who cares about the river and is working to protect and improve it.

Some of them may be farmers or scientists who work with the river on a daily basis. Others may have no direct connection to the river at all other than that they care about it. But as the number of people who want to see the river keep flowing grows, he said there could be a real change from the days where the river was seen as simply a means to deliver water to farm fields.

“We can’t make the Endangered Species Act save the river,” he said. “It’s not going to be top down.”

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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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