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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Following the mud, Day 69

Colin McDonald gets ready for a day of paddling after heavy night rains more than quadrupled flows in the Rio Grande. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

To understand the Rio Grande between Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and Elephant Butte Dam you have to understand how rivers and mud move.  

Elephant Butte Lake is currently more than 100 feet below its conservation pool. For the river, this means it has 100 more feet to drop before it hits the lake, loses all of its energy and starts dropping sediment.   

For us, since we want to paddle canoes, that is a good thing. The more the river drops the more energy it has to carry sediment and the more cutting it does. The deeper it cuts, the more the water is concentrated, making it easier for us to find a channel deep enough to float a canoe. 

But if you want to have flows for maintaining a flood plain, that cutting is exactly what you don’t want. With the river flowing at the bottom of a 10-foot bank, it rarely will have enough water to overflow and recharge the flat land it is cutting through. The two systems then become separated and the habitat for native species is lost.    

We just transitioned from where the river was rising, often overflowing and maintaining that habitat in the refuge, to where it is cutting down. That exact transition point, just like the delta, is determined by the elevation of the lake, some 50 to 70 miles away, depending on how full the reservoir is.  

Unfortunately for the railroad, its bridge is well upstream of that transition. The bridge I floated under was raised 9 feet in 1930 and another 12 feet in 1943. Since then, the riverbed has continued to rise and now locals can rate some floods as “steel high” aka the floodwater laps up against the bottom of the bridge.   

Judging by the logs jammed into the steel support beams and the fine sediment mixed in with the rust, it looks like this happens fairly regularly. 

Either way, we have lucked out again.  

This morning I was able to ride the peak of another small flood through the refuge. Erich joined me at the railroad bridge and there was just enough water in the late afternoon to get us into the trenched reach where we are now camping and hiding from the mosquitos. 

With a little more luck, rainstorms tonight will keep the river flowing and we will be able to hit the remains of Elephant Butte Lake by tomorrow evening.

See what it looks like:

Check out videos of the train track here and here. And take a look at the crazy quicksand mud here.

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 8:53 a.m. 33.87257 -106.8495
#2 9:13 a.m. 33.86955 -106.84807
#3 10:55 a.m. 33.76947 -106.87537
#4 12:02 p.m. 33.71469 -106.92131
#5 1:02 p.m. 33.68676 -106.98723
#6 2:23 p.m. 33.68045 -106.99326
#7 5:06 p.m. 33.66922 -107.00293
#8 5:56 p.m. 33.634 -106.99359
#9 7:35 p.m. 33.56918 -107.07104


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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