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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When a river runs dry, Day 103

David Lozano and Colin McDonald, on the cell phone, walk between the border fence and the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande outside of El Paso. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

When the Spanish marched members of the Isleta Pueblo south as they were fleeing the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the pueblo leaders took their drum with them. It was central to their dances, which were central to their culture. They were moving several hundred miles south from the outskirts of present day Albuquerque to eastern El Paso. The only connection they would have to their homeland would be the Rio Grande.    

They became the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and they started farming the flood plains just as they had up north.  

Ysleta War Captain Javier Loera describes the pueblos along the river like beads of a necklace.  

“Our people were the first to divert water from the Rio Grande,” he said. “Our beliefs are tied to the river. We hold it sacred.” 

It is not an easy belief to hold on to.  

The Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is an urban reservation. The suburbs of El Paso surround its checkerboard land. The farmland is mostly gone. It is federally recognized but had to shut down its casino because of objections from the State of Texas. It has some water rights, but they are undefined and practically useless. 

The pueblo has to request access to the river to perform ceremonies a month in advance.  

The river runs dry by their lands anyway. The tribe’s lawyer, Ron Jackson, said he once tried to explain to the Texas Department of Transportation that the tribe did not have sacred sites on the river, but that the entire river was sacred.  

To them, it is P’ehla Euwla, River Big. It is their culture.  It is more important than even the most sacred drum.   

“To us the river is a vein of Mother Earth,” Loera said. “To us it is still there.” 

David Lozano and I walked 21.5 miles today along the border fence looking for that river.  

We are able to do so because the International Boundary and Water Commission gave us a letter saying we had permission.  I have been working on getting that permission for more than a year. We all carry a laminated copy of the letter to show to Border Patrol and extra copies to hand out.    

We did not intend to spend 6 hours walking today, but we had to because there were no other entry points we could use along the fence. Although we never left the United States, we still had to go through customs to get back to the truck.  

The river is a foreign land.

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 1:01 p.m. 31.67158 -106.33719
#2 1:35 p.m. 31.65231 -106.325
#3 2:09 p.m. 31.62659 -106.3051
#4 2:27 p.m. 31.60729 -106.29971
#5 4:17 p.m. 31.54219 -106.24582
#6 5:28 p.m. 31.48976 -106.22063
#7 6:13 p.m. 31.46589 -106.20471
#8 7:31 p.m. 31.43806 -106.15631
#9 7:46 p.m. 31.43164 -106.14378


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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