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

Running on low, Day 68

Colin digs his paddle as deep as he can into the mud to get into the main flow of the Rio Grande and head down river while there is enough water to float his boat. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

It is amazing what a little rain can do. For the last three days, we’ve been working on the logistics of how to get through the 70 miles of mosquito-infested and sediment-clogged river between Elephant Butte Dam and us.  

On all the other challenging sections, people who had never seen the river would tell us the rapids would destroy our boats and drown us or that downed trees would make the canyons impassible. They were difficult to ignore, but fortunately wrong.    

Here in San Antonio and Socorro, the people who have seen the river, who work with it on a daily basis, who are charged with keeping the meager flows moving and reaching Elephant Butte, simply tell us it will be difficult.  

It is a terrifying description because it is coming from people who are not prone to exaggeration. These are farmers and scientists, people who make their livings by correctly reading environmental conditions. Most of them are also boaters. If it were going to be fun, they would jump at the opportunity to join us.  

None of them are. The ideal craft for this section is an airboat that can skim across a quarter-inch of water at 60 mph.   

That worry, combined with lack of sleep and the challenge of writing and taking photos in temperatures hovering around triple digits — all while learning how the Rio Grande works — had me muttering and kicking rocks this morning.   

I was tired and frustrated with constant fundraising and planning. There are great stories here on the river that I don’t feel I am capturing.   

And then the rain came down. It came with a roar of white noise that covered all other sounds. Flash flood warnings were announced on the radio. The temperature of the air and the river dropped. The sky would clear and then another deluge would come. I launched in a downpour that put half an inch of water in the bottom of the canoe in less than half an hour.  

It may sound foolish to launch a canoe in such conditions and maybe it was. But the river only rose a few inches and I could make miles again without having to wade in knee-deep mud. Within an hour I was taking out my sunglasses and hat. The sky was a deep blue. Suddenly everything was all right.  

The rain is expected to keep coming and I will ride the crest as far and as fast as I can.

See a quick video of a day on the river.

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 8:09 a.m. 34.08235 -106.87621
#2 12:39 p.m. 34.08231 -106.87646
#3 4:36 p.m. 33.99366 -106.86349
#4 6:00 p.m. 33.92319 -106.85043
#5 6:08 p.m. 33.91893 -106.85097
#6 7:25 p.m. 33.87254 -106.84958


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