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.Read more
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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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.
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|
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.