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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The 8:30 a.m. call, Day 53

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Hydrologist Paul Tashjian, front left; Middle Rio Grande Conservancy hydrologist David Gensler, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation fish biologist Stacey Stanford and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Water Operations supervisor Carolyn Donnelly, all know each other very well. In the summer, they talk by phone on an almost daily basis to figure out how to meet the competing needs along the Rio Grande. Photo by: Colin McDonald

There is a private conference call that happens at 8:30 a.m. on an as-needed basis that decides the fate of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. 

At this call, the decision of when and where the Rio Grande will go dry is made. 

It's about as exciting as water policy gets, but the public cannot listen in as the federal and state agencies coordinate where, when and how water will be released from the reservoirs and where and when it will be diverted.  

Unlike Colorado — which has a strict system of allocating water based on a priority list that is public and clearly marks who will get water and who will not based on the available supply — New Mexico works it out along the middle reach of the Rio Grande by sharing the scarcity and politics.

“There is a lot of horse trading that goes on,” said David Gensler, a hydrologist with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, who is a regular on the phone call.

The MRGCD controls all water in the Rio Grande for 200 miles between Cochit Dam and Elephant Butte.  

Those on the call explained that the meeting is very boring, complicated and goes smoother when those who do not deal with the river on a daily basis are not tying up one of the 16 lines.  

I was told it is better if the representatives of the various agencies feel they can talk freely. The general public and consumers of the water don’t need to hear about the deals made to deliver their water. 

“The cultures of New Mexico and Colorado are quite different,” said Carolyn Donnelly, the water operations supervisor for the Albuquerque area office for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Donnelly organizes the call and is happy to share the “notes” of the call, which is the list the group decides on for how water will be moved. 

She was also raised in New Mexico.

 “There is no other place like it,” she said. “There is a lot more of a ‘kind of just let things slide’ attitude in New Mexico.”   

 Water scarcity used to not be a big issue. Albuquerque advertised it was on top of an aquifer the size of Lake Superior and it had a backup source delivered via a tunnel from the west slope of the Rocky Mountains.

Then came the 1990s.  It was pointed out that the aquifer was not that big and its water table was dropping.  The silvery minnow became a federally protected species. Population and demand started to grow. The droughts did not let up. The future of water from the west slope became uncertain.  

“The poop kind of hit the fan all at once,” said David Gensler, a hydrologist with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. 

Without an enforceable priority list and a court system dedicated to resolve water issues, New Mexico had to go with the tools it had.

It went with the phone call.

The system does work. The minnows are still alive, some even made it through last summer when large sections of the river went dry. At the same time, farm fields and the cities received water.

But it is not getting easier. The droughts are expected to get longer and more severe. Demand is expected to grow. The future of the bosque of cottonwoods that line the river is in doubt. 

The question of what happens when there is not enough water to keep even a few sections of the river wet and deliver water to the farms and meet the city’s demand is not answered.  

“That’s a delicate question we have been dancing around for 20 years,” Gensler said. 

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 4:18 p.m. 35.15201 -106.58562


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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