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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The big fear, Day 104

David Lozano, left, and Colin McDonald take a break along the border fence while waiting for a member of the Border Patrol to unlock the gate. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

We spent today walking along the result of the Rio Grande being dedicated to irrigation. Cotton, alfalfa and pecans grew on our left. On our right was a dry riverbed.  

Delivering water from the Rio Grande to the 69,000-plus acres of fields we have walked by is the job of Jesus "Chuy" Reyes, general manager of the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1.

The District’s logo is the profile of a family standing amongst cotton, a chili, a cow and bales of grass. Across the top are the words “Thanks to the Rio Grande.” 

For Reyes, this is the way the river should be used. All of the communities that are now along the Rio Grande got their start because of farming. The cities not only get water via the diversion dams and irrigation ditches the farmers built, but they also get rid of stormwater via the drainage canals built by farmers.  

Everything is here because of the river. But the river is not permanent.  

Last year was the worst irrigation year for the district since Elephant Butte Dam was completed in 1916. Reyes described the last 11 years as a roller coaster. The last three years were terrifying because they have all been down.  

The snowpack of the Rocky Mountains, which supplies the water for the project, hasn’t been enough.  

In response, farmers are drilling wells. But that is not a long term solution.  

The water they are pulling from the ground was put there by the Rio Grande. It is not being replaced and what is coming out of the ground is increasingly salty. It’s salty enough to kill pecan trees. Farmers are adding acid to the water to reduce the pH and the potency of the salt.    

“That’s the scary part,” Reyes said.  “We are starting to see homes that had wells 50- to 60-feet deep go dry. We are starting to see the impact of the water table dropping.” 

Unless the river comes back, that drop is expected to continue. If it stays away long enough, the only thing to walk along here will be the 20-foot-high border fence. 

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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 2:12 p.m. 31.41101 -106.09474
#2 3:02 p.m. 31.39837 -106.07573
#3 4:58 p.m. 31.39312 -106.00577
#4 5:29 p.m. 31.38481 -105.99309


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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