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

Priorities, Day 54

Ariane Pinson walks through a row of jetty jacks near the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque. Photo by: Colin McDonald

The problem with jetty jacks is they work exactly as intended. 

These contraptions — three steel beams welded together and laced with wire — slow floodwaters, causing them to drop the sediment they carry and causing the floodplain along the river to build up. They are also placed to direct the water back to the main channel, which then gets cut deeper with the increased flows.   

Add a dam to control floods and the floodplain stops getting flooded.  The entire ecosystem changes, i.e., the cottonwoods are not being replaced. They are dying out.   

“They worked like a charm,” said Ariane Pinson, climate science specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers. “Now it’s not what we want. … If we want anything that resembles a portion of that system, we need to have the peak flows to support that.”  

Basically, if we want a river that functions as such and not as a ditch, the floods have to be restored.  

What we want is a question at the center of Pinson’s work.  

The Rio Grande is changing.  By the end of the century climate models predict its average flows will be a third less than what they are now.  Pinson and I spent a couple hours exploring the cottonwood bosque around the Rio Grande Nature Center, so she could show me what she was talking about.  

More than just a lower water volume, how that water comes is going to change as well, Pinson explained.  Snow pack will be smaller and melt faster; summer monsoons will  probably increase. 

Pinson studied the speed of climate change at the end of the last ice age.  She loves looking at how the mud from ancient lakes dried out and then blew away to become sand dunes.   

 As fascinating as that transition is, it was not easy for the plant and animal species that were dependent on the lakes.  The Southwest, and specifically the Rio Grande Valley, is facing another major transition.  

Pinson said that outside of Alaska, the Southwest is going to face the biggest negative impacts from climate change.  

“We have to know what our priorities are,” Pinson said. “Not everyone is going to be able to do what they currently do with the water.  As a community, we have to decide what that means.”  

By comparison, the jetty jacks are an easy issue to deal with.  The floodplains are now so high and dry they are becoming fire hazards. The jetty jacks, which are very similar to the ones used at Normandy, are excellent at stopping fire trucks and there is a move to start removing them.  

In the meantime, channels have been cut through the floodplain that will get flooded with even the smallest of spring floods and provide habitats similar to the old floodplains.   

It’s basically a very small version of the old Rio Grande.

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 10:13 p.m. 35.63121 -106.02368


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