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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Take away the water, Days 114 and 115

From left, Javier Barragan, Juan Tarango, Gilbert Barragan, Erby Tarango, Omar Barragan Jr., Michael Barragan, Omar Barragan Sr., Benny Valles and Juan Sotelo all stop to pose for group photos while out to check on the family cattle. Photo by: Colin McDonald

What happens when a river runs dry? Everyone leaves.   

Between the Bramblett Ranch, which I left Thursday afternoon, and Candelaria where I arrived Sunday afternoon, I met one person who actually lived along the river year round.  

Jose Jesus Octaviano Parada says he was blessed with a well that hit water at 40 feet and produces enough so he can grow 15 acres of alfalfa. He can’t drink the water, but it keeps his alfalfa going so he can get six cuttings a year.  

His farm is the last of dozens that used to flank the river on both sides. Parada was born along this reach of river. He only wishes he was born earlier, so he could have spent his days on horseback tending cattle.

“I wish I could have done that,” he said. “But I was born too late.” 

Before Parada was born, his father said the river was always full of water by Mother’s Day thanks to the snowmelt in the Rockies.  

As the river snaked back and forth across the valley, it irrigated all of the flat land. Cottonwoods thrived in the moist soil. Cotton, hay fields and big ranches kept the economy going.  

For the most part, that is all gone. 

“Eventually there is going to be a lot of bloodshed over that water,” Parada said.

If there is going to be a water war, there won’t be a lot of recruits coming out of this part of the Rio Grande. Houses outnumber people on both sides of the river. More of the houses are in ruins than standing.  

Even those who absolutely love the land could not stay.  

Erbey Tarango’s great-great-great grandfather is buried along the Rio Grande on land his father and uncle lease to run cattle on today.  

Both sides of his family have lived on both sides of the Rio Grande for generations. But there has not been enough work to stay along the river for two decades.  

They compromised. Everyone moved to Van Horn or other small, developed towns to the north along major highways. During the week, they work in the oil fields. Once or twice a month, they all come down to tend to 100 head of cattle they keep along the river.   

Ranching is now a family hobby. But most years it pays for itself, Tarango’s older brother, Israel Tarango said. And when everyone heads out for the big round up, there will be four generations riding together. They can’t get that kind of time together back in the city.     

Before the drought the family had 200 cows. They started to die as the grass disappeared. The family hauled out as many as they could to move them to better pasture. A lot of the grass is now back, but everyone is leery of increasing the herd.   

“We are afraid it is going to happen again,” Tarango said.  

The only reason the land can support cattle at all is an oil company failed to cap one of its wells, which created a hot spring that flows year round. Once the water cools, it is good enough for cattle to drink.   

In the summer, when the Rio Grande runs dry, the spring and the creek it feeds are the only reliable water for miles.   

I assumed I could drink the water from the Rio Grande if I got in a tight spot. Then I saw the results of the first water test. If the salt didn’t make me sick, the bacteria growing in the stagnant pools surely would.  

The cows apparently could handle it, but I needed at least a gallon and a half a day. I did not trust that my water filter would still function after the first gallon.  

I got lucky and found Ash Spring. I was able to get enough clean water. Fear of running out motivated me to move quickly to Candelaria.  

The first thing Tarango’s family and Parada asked me when we met was if they could give me water. They all haul it in from Van Horn and were happy to share. I was happy to refill.   

You die pretty quick without water out here.

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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 6:59 a.m. 30.32478 -104.75195
#2 9:01 a.m. 30.3238 -104.75232
#3 10:10 a.m. 30.29001 -104.75748
#4 10:51 a.m. 30.27538 -104.75275
#5 12:18 p.m. 30.25509 -104.72389
#6 1:02 p.m. 30.22617 -104.70782
#7 2:10 p.m. 30.19831 -104.69702
#8 3:01 p.m. 30.17518 -104.68292
#9 4:03 p.m. 30.15503 -104.68237
#10 5:53 p.m. 30.13892 -104.68375


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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