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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Life Choices, Day 32

Johnny Sanchez prepares a siphon pipe to irrigate a corn field the way his grandmother taught him. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

At 83 years old, Louie Burck does what he wants.  Most of the time, that means getting in his truck and heading down to the river.

“I never get tired of this country,” he said, while looking over the confluence of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, where he has run cattle for decades. “In the summer, I come down here three times a day.”

Burck is not sure if he is officially a member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, which controls the land his cattle graze. His wife, Bertha, who died in 2011, was, though, and he has a hunch he was made an honorary member.

The question of who owns which piece of land is complicated where these rivers meet. The rivers themselves are always moving, cutting new channels through the soft sand and gravel. It’s hard to establish property markers on land that is constantly changing.

Then there is the history.

In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate established the first Spanish capital here in what would become New Mexico. That kicked off a long series of competing land-rights claims that went from the Spanish Crown, through Mexico, then through the United States and finally back to the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

Either way, Burck is the only one now who has the time and interest to tend to the cattle. Even that is limited. The herd used to have 96 head. Now it is down to 18.

He keeps the cow that Bertha hand fed as a calf after its mother was shot. He likes to have the reminder of his wife’s kind heart.

There is little competition for the grass anyway. The number of people with the skill and interest to farm or ranch these days is limited.

“I think back in the day no one had the option,” said Burck’s grandson Johnny Sanchez. “Now it is just the people who really care about it and are doing it.”

Sanchez is 18 and spent his summers helping his grandparents raise corn for the farmers market and tending fences.

He went to high school at the Santa Fe Indian School, a boarding school for tribal members. From day one, he had a plan to get into a prestigious college.  He made sure he had a well-rounded resume and applied to Dartmouth College. He was accepted and given a full scholarship in November.

In 1977, a team of undergraduates from Dartmouth’s Ledyard Canoe Club launched a successful expedition down the length of the Rio Grande. The school has a long history of launching such expeditions and supports students with ambitions for grand adventures.

For Sanchez, that is a perfect match.

At his boarding school, many of his classmates had plans to become lawyers and specialize in water law. New Mexico’s water laws are so complicated and unorganized that there are several generations of legal work waiting for those who want to sort it out. Because they were the first to use the water, the Pueblos have the most to gain and lose from those decisions.

But Sanchez wants to see the world.  He graduated at the top of his class and appears to have no intention of slowing down.

He is going to go where he wants.  Just like his grandfather.

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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