Disappearing Rio Grande

New? Start here.

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.

Read more

A connection to the river, Day 52

Carl Tsosie stands next to a pasture where he is the keeper of the Picuris Pueblo’s bison herd. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Feast day for the Picuris Pueblo is August 10. For the Catholic Church, it is to mark San Lorenzo Day. Lorenzo was a deacon in ancient Rome under Pope Sixtus II.  

For tribal elder Carl A. Tsosie, the celebration marks a more current event.   

August 10, 1680, is when the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, with their Apache allies, drove the Spanish out of their homeland.   

The Spanish returned 12 years later and the Pueblos have had to deal with outsiders ever since.  

“The bitterness never goes away,” Tsosie said.  

But don’t think Tsosie is stuck in the past.  He is fluent in the dialect of the Picuris Pueblo, English and Spanish. He is proud of his father’s service in World War II, earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, built the Catholic church in his pueblo and has close friends who come from all walks of life, including his neighbors who are proud descendants of those Spanish settlers.    

“I know Spanish and English,” he said.  “Everything is based on the verb to be. Not us, we are right now.” 

And right now, Tsosie is working on restoring bison to North America.   

He is working with a herd of about 50 head that he has built up over the last 14 years.  The herd started with bison he received from the state of New Mexico when it removed them from Fort Wingate.  

Since then, he has traded, bought and sold animals with tribes and private ranches from South Dakota to South Texas to improve the herd’s genetic diversity and build support for returning the animals to their historic range.  

We visited Tsosie because he had helped Hugh Fitzsimons, one of the supporters of this expedition, establish his herd of bison in South Texas and the two have since become friends.  

Tsosie also promised a different view on the Rio Grande. 

The river is 10 miles away from Tsosie’s home but he sees it every day in a 2-foot wide, hand-dug irrigation ditch that runs in front of his house.  The ditch predates Spanish settlement and is the most permanent structure in the Pueblo.  

Some of the water from the ditch will eventually make it to the river, but most of it will be used for irrigation or evaporate before it does. But so will all the water in the Rio Grande. It’s all part of the same hydrologic cycle.  

“There is no beginning and end here,” Tsosie said, looking over the ditch as it flood irrigated a field of alfalfa where he keeps the bison herd. “Our connection is right here.”

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

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 1:56 p.m. 36.20164 -105.7319


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.


Jessica Lutz
Mike Kane
Project Editor
Barbara Hosler
Copy Editor
News Apps Team Lead | @rdmurphy
Google Journalism Fellow | @jessihamel
Web Designer | @been_hussln
Editor | @ATXjj