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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It's a small world, Day 66

The International Space Station arcs across the night sky above Socorro, New Mexico. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

We are about to enter the most confusing part of the Rio Grande.  The section of river from the southern boundary of The Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to the edge of the reservoir behind Elephant Butte Dam, which is now 7.5 percent full, is a place where engineering and the river are in constant struggle.   

Towns have been abandoned there because of the floods.  Contractors from Louisiana had to be brought in with amphibious backhoes to dig a channel through the delta that is always growing at the head of the lake and filling in any trench that is cut through it.   

Kayaks and canoes are abandoned there because the water and mud merge into goop that is too thick to paddle through and too thin to walk on.  

We need to know more about it before we venture in so we are staying with Paul Bauer and Peggy Johnson while we do some recon and figure things out.  

This is no ordinary couple or home. First there are the gardens and fruit trees, which are producing so many grapes, cucumbers, apples, kale and leafy greens that even Erich’s appetite is being sated.   

And then there are Bauer and Johnson. Bauer is a geologist and river runner who wrote “The Rio Grande, A Guide to the Geology and Landscapes of Northern New Mexico.”  

The book won guidebook of the year and is selling on Amazon for $346.38. But you can buy it from the New Mexico Bureau of Geology & Mineral Resources for $18.95. 

Johnson is a hydrologist who literally writes the books about water issues in New Mexico. If either one of them does not know an answer to a question about the Rio Grande — no matter what the subject — they went to school with, work with or are friends with the person who does. And they probably have that person’s cellphone number.  

If that was not enough, Bauer is also one of the geologists that NASA hires to train astronauts. So when the International Space Station passed over his house on Saturday night, he and Johnson took a stroll out to the middle of the horse-training arena to see how things were going.  

Every astronaut aboard has studied under Bauer on how to read landscapes.  

If any of them were looking out the window, they would have seen the darkness taking over the delta of the Elephant Butte Reservoir. Thanks to Bauer, they would know exactly what they were looking at. 

And thanks to him and Johnson, we know we need to take our time before we go take a closer look.

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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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