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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A farmer's view, day 64

A photo from 1905 by R.E. Chapman shows the Rio Grande and present site of Indian Hill Farms. The railroad, which acted as a levee, would be knocked out several times by future floods. The 2014 photo by Erich Schlegel shows the drainage ditch, with water, and the low flow conveyance channel, without water, next to the river. The low flow channel was built to deliver water more efficiently to Elephant Butte Reservoir, but has since silted up and now acts as a drain that lowers the water table.

Few people are more connected to the Rio Grande politically, financially, socially and physically than alfalfa farmer Corkey Herkenhoff.  

He can tell which arroyo is flooding into the river just by the smell of water as it flows past his home on Indian Hill Farms.  When he started out farming in the early 1970s he was asked to pay bribes to board members of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. He was outraged at the coruption, was elected to the board as a reformer and is now one of its strongest supporters. 

He can rattle off the year of every major flood in the last century and describe how it changed the shape of the riverbed.  

He can also describe in detail how each engineering project designed to control the river failed and the impact it had on the last four generations of his family. 

He can trace the ownership of his land back to the late 1600s. Historical research is not a hobby.  He had to do it to prove he had senior water rights.  Of everything on his 750-acre farm, water is his most valuable asset. 

He knows that the purchase prices of the neighbors’ farms were determined by their water rights. Those who are buying are not interested in farming but instead in eventually selling or leasing that water to the growing cities and their suburbs.  

He understands that, at 73, he is probably the last one in his family who will farm at Indian Hill.  

“My plan is to not die,” he said.   

Herkenhoff is no fan of the Endangered Species Act or the groups that file lawsuits under it. But he agrees with them that the river has changed dramatically.  

When he was growing up and the river stopped flowing, which it has done since before the Spanish arrived, there would be large pools left where fish would congregate.  When he was a kid, he and his siblings would go out and pull nets through the stagnant water to gather the fish.  His mother would cook the catfish and feed the carp to the pigs and chickens.  The minnows would fill buckets and were dumped back into the pools.  

When there were too many fish to collect and they started to die, Herkenhoff said he would be sent out with a mixture of diesel and oil to spray on the floating fish and light them on fire.   

“They would throw a fit if you did that today,” he said.  

Now when the river goes dry, there are no pools.  They stopped forming when Cochiti Dam was built.  Now when the river goes dry, its bed is overlapping layers of mud and sand.   

But the farming is still good. Alfalfa prices are near record highs. Everyone still gets water.  

“The allotment from the conservancy (MRGCD) is pretty fair,” he said.  “When water gets tight, they say ‘you guys suck it up and hope for rain. “ 

For the last 50 years, Herkenhoff said that rain has always come. He would not still be farming if it did not.  

This summer the rain has come too often. He has not had enough sunny days in a row to dry out the alfalfa so that it can be baled.   

But the rain is what has kept the river flowing and water in his irrigation ditches so he can keep growing.   

Herkenhoff does not dismiss the concerns of those who want to see the Rio Grande be able to act more like a natural river and support endangered species. But he points out that with a dam that blocks all of the sediment and floods from northern New Mexico, the river can never be what it was. 

“People need to recognize the limits of the system today,” he said.  “Then we can get along.” 

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 8:49 a.m. 34.54469 -106.7641
#2 9:26 a.m. 34.5256 -106.78781
#3 12:01 p.m. 34.42445 -106.80052
#4 1:27 p.m. 34.37419 -106.83867
#5 2:07 p.m. 34.34973 -106.85535
#6 4:59 p.m. 34.2574 -106.8891


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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