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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Habitat restoration, Day 55

Ewes and lambs bolt out of a trailer into the Jemez Mountains. They are part of the first group of bighorn sheep in more than a century to be on these cliffs. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

For the first time in more than a century, big horn sheep are wandering the ridges above the Cochiti Pueblo.  The sheep were once a key food source for the pueblo and their return marks a homecoming as leaders of the pueblo work to reconnect with their past.  

“This is not just big horn sheep,” said Kai-T Blue-Sky, a biologist and member of the Cochiti Pueblo who worked for a year and a half to make the release happen.    

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish delivered 45 sheep by trailer after they were caught with nets dropped from helicopters at Wheeler Peak. The population there had grown too large to be sustainable. 

Members of the Cochiti and surrounding pueblos greeted the sheep like celebrities. They lined up to shoot photos as the bighorn rams, ewes and lambs burst from the trailer and bounded away for the cliffs.  

Afterward, Blue-Sky walked around shaking hands and being congratulated. He had found a positive outcome from the fires that had ripped through the dense stands of pines that once covered these steep slopes.   

Before the fire, federal and state biologists dismissed the cliffs as unacceptable habitat for the reintroduction of sheep because the trees prevented them from having the clear views they need to spot predators.  

Now the trees are pillars of charcoal and the views go on for miles. With the timely monsoon rains this summer, the hills are a vibrant green.   

“The sheep should be real happy here,” said Bill Taylor, the wildlife biologist for Northwest New Mexico, who drove the truck hauling the sheep. 

The reintroduction of the sheep is part of a much larger plan that Blue-Sky has to recover the species his pueblo depended on and reassert its role as a steward of the land.  

He is working on getting turkeys reintroduced this winter and next year will work on pronghorn antelope.  The remains of the animals were found by archeologists and can be seen in the rock art that scattered across the mountains.  But they have not been seen in person for generations.   

Blue-Sky said bringing the animals back is “a no brainer,” if the pueblo wants to rebuild its connection to the past. And there are some huge side benefits.  

The releases, which have been happening all week in small batches, have gotten people from all Cochiti and neighboring pueblos to drive an hour over rough and washed-out roads to scramble around on cliffs so they can get a view of the sheep. There is pride in seeing them in the mountains again.  

Now, work is being done to build a shared conservation ethic among the pueblos to take care of the sheep so that they are treated as more than trophy animals.  

It’s also a success that Blue-Sky can point to as he works on more ambitious projects to reintroduce rainbow trout to Cochiti Lake and Rio Grande cutthroat to the water below it.  

More than just a way to attract high paying anglers and create jobs, the fish will act as constant water-quality monitors.  The fish are very sensitive to changes in temperature and any source of pollution.  If something goes wrong, the fish will go belly up and everyone will know there’s a problem.    

For Blue-Sky, who can rattle off 500 years of crimes committed against his pueblo, that kind of monitoring is much more reliable than anything the state or federal agencies will do.   

It is the reason he became a biologist.  He wants to know exactly what, how and why management decisions are being made about the land his ancestors called home.   

He wants the days of dams being built on sacred sites to end. So he is learning how those decisions are made.  

“We can never be lied to in a language we don’t understand again,” he said.  

More than preventing lies, he can find truths that will get people lined up on the edge of a cliff just to catch a glimpse of a big horn sheep.

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 11:37 a.m. 35.617 -106.32542
#2 1:48 p.m. 35.58699 -106.35277
#3 3:02 p.m. 35.52737 -106.37363
#4 7:04 p.m. 35.76244 -106.41866


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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