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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Erich's Adventure, Day 38

This petroglyph, done in what is known as the "Rio Grande Style," is estimated to be several hundred years old. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Below is a post by photographer Erich Schlegel that he wrote about an adventure he had last week. We are purposefully making it difficult to find the spot of this petroglyph. It is not located on the map below. We don’t want to take away from the experience for anyone else who wants to find it.

I was wet and cold, but I was not yet ready to leave. I was walking through a boulder field along the Rio Grande River, in search of a petroglyph of a warrior. At the beginning of our expedition, I saw an image of a petroglyph in a guide book. I remember thinking that it looked like a Native American warrior protecting the river. The general location was mentioned in the caption. About one month later, we were camping in this section of the Rio Grande Gorge. Some locals had told me of petroglyphs (ancient images etched on rocks) in the area, but I could not remember the name of the trail where they had seen them.

I struck out one afternoon to search for this warrior on a rock. This was a daunting task as the Rio Grande Gorge is filled with millions of rocks this size!  It was just like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack, so I studied the image for every little detail. There were elements in the background that I began to recognize and some geological features that I should be able to line up. By studying the photo carefully, I figured out what side of the river and approximately how far from the river the petroglyph warrior stood. I just had to line up the boulder with another larger one behind it. I felt like Indiana Jones in the "Search for the Warrior on the Rock”.

The trail went along the river’s edge, poison ivy everywhere, then up through the rock fall, full of stinging cactus. An afternoon monsoon thunderstorm blew in hard with gale-force winds. Through the storm, I kept looking, focusing on each rock face, looking for the two boulders I'd seen lining up in the image.

My heart sank when I lined up two boulders, but the one where the warrior should stand had been cracked, as if someone had taken a chunk home. I felt sadness and anger. I was sure someone had found the petroglyph and looted the sacred warrior. I cursed them! I wished bad things to happen to them!

I figured I should look around a little more, since I was already out here. I climbed higher through the boulder field. I thought maybe I’d get lucky and find another petroglyph. Then, coming over a ridge, there he was!  The Warrior was still there! I was stunned, frozen in place. Then a flood of emotion washed over me and I started to cry. The cold rain and wind pelted me as tears rolled down my face. I thought the Warrior had been destroyed. I did not expect to find him and the emotion and relief of this discovery was simply overwhelming. Minutes before, I had been sure he was gone, obliterated, stolen.  But there he was, just like I had seen in the book.

I have decided to share this image with the hopes that someone else has the same thrill of discovery that I had. I also fear that someone will deface or steal the Warrior, so I have changed the background of the photo just enough to make the Warrior much harder to locate. If you find the original image in the book, you can figure out its location just like I did.  Hopefully, he will still be there, protecting the river for ages to come.

Note: Erich and Colin took a rest day at Cochiti Lake. Check out this quick video on their Facebook page to see why it was an excellent day to be off the water.

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

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 8:16 p.m. 35.63565 -106.3223


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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