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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Using the sewer to bring the river back, day 86

Bill Hoover, a master naturalist from El Paso, pulls a bundle of tumbleweed as father and daughter team Estephany and Alegandro Moreno from Juarez, Mexico, work on cutting more. In the background, the Boy Scouts of Troop 44 of the Yucca Council survey the next area to be cleared. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Water is returning to an old bend of the Rio Grande south of El Paso. With it is a taste of life along the river a century ago.

In 1933, the United States and Mexico signed a treaty and agreed to finally wrestle the Rio Grande under complete control as it flowed between El Paso and Juarez. The flow of the river was already regulated with completion of Elephant Butte Dam in 1916. But the river channel still meandered. Every time it moved it destroyed farmland and shifted the border between the countries.

The result was that the river channel became a 590-foot-wide ditch. When the work was done, Mexico and the U.S. swapped about 3,500 acres as the bends of the river were eliminated and the river shrunk by about 70 miles.

The old bend we visited on Saturday, which is now the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, was left high and dry.  Most of the land had been in Mexico, but with the river channel relocated south it was now all in the United States.

It became farmland for awhile and in 1973 the U.S. government bought it with plans to create a city park. Very little happened.

By the 1980s, the Fish and Wildlife Service advocated for treated sewage to be applied to the land so the wetlands could come back. Again, very little happened.

Then with a flurry of activity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the park was reborn. The El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 agreed to deliver water. In 2001 and 2002, the dry land exploded with plant growth as irrigation water flowed through a reconstructed channel.

“We caught a real break in 2001 and 2002," said John Sproul, the manager of the wetlands for the University of Texas at El Paso.

Then the drought started in earnest, the irrigation district stopped making deliveries and the land reverted to a desert landscape dominated by invasive species once more.

"2003 was a horrible year and it's been dry ever since," Sproul said.  He had to watch the trees die and the landscape wither.

In 2009, a well was turned on that provided just enough water to wet about half a mile of river bed.

Last year a second well was added and that length grew to almost a mile.

But the 375-acre park has two miles of riverbed.

Next year, the El Paso Water Utilities plans to deliver water straight from the neighboring Roberto Bustamante Wastewater Treatment Plant. The river will flow again.

There is no such thing as free water in El Paso. The move by the water utility took water that used to go to farmers. In the future, the utility plans to divert some of this treated sewage to a new treatment plant so it can be treated and sold again as drinking water. I’ll write more about that tomorrow. 

But for the wetland it means that for the next couple years it will have lots of water, at least in comparison to what it is used to getting. 

It’s going to have so much that the water utility is going to monitor the ground water to see if the fresh water from the sewer plant will start to push back the brackish groundwater that lies below the wetland.

If enough fresh water accumulates, it could become a new water source for the city.

The water would not only provide habitat for the native species and migrating birds, but it would give rebirth to the water supply that originally supported the city.

In the meantime, volunteers are busy preparing the park for the surge of water. We spent Saturday with college students, Boy Scouts and retirees pulling out interwoven bushes of tumbleweeds the size of small cars.

It was a blast.  

To learn more about the park, the burrowing owls that now live there and to learn about volunteering, visit the Facebook Page for Friends of the Rio Bosque Park.

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 10:10 a.m. 31.63648 -106.30608


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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