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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Walking to Smeltertown, Day 84

Colin McDonald starts his walk along the dry river bed of the Rio Grande headed for Smeltertown on the edge of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

More than 100 years ago, the land I walked through today was known as Smeltertown or La Esmelda. 

It was a small city of several thousand — mostly Mexican immigrants — who came to work at what was then the largest refining operation in the Southwest.

Built on company land, the homes, schools and churches were fitted around the limestone quarries and brick manufacturing plants that were part of the industrial complex. There was a YMCA and a Catholic church that served as a social hub. By 1940, the Cristo Rey Monument was built on top of what is now known as Mount Cristo Ray. The climb up the steep mountain that overlooks the Rio Grande became a popular pilgrimage.

I learned all this from the historical markers I passed while walking the levee. Smeltertown is now gone. Concern about the level of toxins in the dirt, mainly lead, forced the entire community to be relocated in the early 1970s.

The landscape is now riddled with the remains of industrial sites. A paved trail that is popular with cyclists, dog walkers and horse riders features signs warning people to stay out of the river.

The only reliable sources of water along this reach are the sewer treatment plants. The pungent smell of the plants comes and goes depending on the direction of the wind. The pools of water that make up the river vary in temperature with how close they are to the outfall pipes.

The paved path abruptly ends about four miles from the border. I saw no one after that except for Border Patrol agents parked in trucks and those passing by on the highway.

I crisscrossed the river depending on which levee looked passable or did not have a large gate topped with concertina wire.  By doing this, I also bounced back and forth between Texas and New Mexico. 

Thanks to the International Boundary Water Commission, we had access to the American Dam, which sits a few yards upstream from the border with Mexico.  The dam collects the river/sewer water and sends it down the American Canal so it can be applied to farm fields southeast of El Paso. 

Only during floods, or when Mexico is receiving the water it is due by treaty is the river be allowed to flow past the dam.

Thanks to that access, Erich was able to meet with several of the Border Patrol agents who were stationed along the river before I arrived to explain what we were doing. 

With that understanding, most of them gave us big smiles and waves as I walked up to the border of Mexico and said goodbye to New Mexico. 

On Monday, I’ll start the walk along the edge of Texas as we head for the Gulf of Mexico. 

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 9:37 a.m. 31.959 -106.60503
#2 10:39 a.m. 31.92533 -106.6035
#3 11:36 a.m. 31.87507 -106.60419
#4 1:05 p.m. 31.84397 -106.60408
#5 1:52 p.m. 31.8166 -106.58919
#6 2:53 p.m. 31.80084 -106.55011
#7 3:04 p.m. 31.79958 -106.5388
#8 3:38 p.m. 31.78391 -106.52974
#9 3:59 p.m. 31.78423 -106.52739


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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