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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Ghosts and Gauges, Day 31

A work shed at the Embudo Train Station and the water tower still stand, in large part thanks to the work of the original station manager who spent his free time building a facade around the building using local stone. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

When Preston and Sandra Cox moved into the old narrow gauge railroad station in Embudo, they thought the history of the place could be a problem.

“I thought there would be a lot more ghosts,” said Sandra.

Sandra said the caves on the ridge behind the station where raiding Indian warriors used to hide while plundering the local pueblos are haunted. The only problem visitor they have had, though, was a bear that came into the house to eat the cat food earlier this month.

There is, however, a different spirit lurking at the station.  This is the site of the oldest stream gauge in the country.  Back in 1888, Civil War hero and Grand Canyon explorer Major John Wesley Powell was the director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

He knew from his travels across the West that understanding exactly how much water was in the rivers would be crucial for deciding where cities and farms could develop.

The only problem was there was no method to reliably measure a river.  So Powell sent out 26-year-old Hayes Newell and 14 other recent engineering graduates to figure out how to do it on the Rio Grande.

Embudo Station was chosen because the river would not freeze and the newly built station on the Chili Line provided an easy place to send supplies.

There are now more than 50,000 river gauges spread out across the U.S. that still use the same basic principles developed at Embudo.

For Sandra and Preston, they are happy to see the river is flowing high again after the last several years of drought and the wildlife seems to be doing well.

“Imagine living in a place where you can still see bear, or a family of crows, or bobcats and red-tailed hawks,” Preston said.

And for the bear?

“The bear went over the mountain, and we have not seen him since,” Preston said.

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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 8:34 a.m. 36.29676 -105.7735
#2 10:50 a.m. 36.23024 -105.85587
#3 11:59 a.m. 36.21654 -105.901
#4 12:43 p.m. 36.21016 -105.95547
#5 12:53 p.m. 36.20769 -105.95987
#6 3:11 p.m. 36.17028 -105.97421
#7 3:50 p.m. 36.14304 -106.00356
#8 4:43 p.m. 36.11873 -106.04573


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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