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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It's easier to break the law, Day 116

A panorama photo taken when the U.S Army had a fort in Candelaria built to defend against Pancho Villa. Photo by: Unkown

In Candelaria, the easiest way to get a pack of cigarettes or a pound of sugar is to walk a mile into Mexico.   

Yes, it is a felony to come back. But everyone knows when the Border Patrol agents are in town and the river is so shallow it hardly gets your feet wet. 

The alternative is to drive an hour downriver to Presidio. The road is paved, but if it rains you run the risk of being stranded by the water crossings. The store in San Antonio de Bravo, Mexico, on the other hand, is a 20-minute walk. 

There used to be a steel pedestrian bridge that saved people the hassle of climbing up and down the sandy river banks. It was removed in the rush to secure the borders after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  

Today, the path is well worn and goes right by the sign listing the federal statutes a person can be prosecuted under for crossing the river. Someone has scratched off the “un” of unlawful, so the sign reads “It is lawful for persons to enter the United States at this location.”   

Abel Tellez just wants to know why federal agents have to point guns at him whenever he crosses. He is 88 years old. He was born in Candelaria and has crossed the river since he was a child to go to dances and parties. At his 85th birthday party he was proud he could still dance the night away with younger women. 

When he was 14 and 15 and chasing girls, he said he and his friends would borrow a mule to wade the river. Life was all about farming with water from the river then. Horses and mules plowed the fields. Every family had its own herd of goats and maybe a milk cow.   

“I still think that if we had water in the river most of the time, there would still be people that would want to farm,” he said.  

But the river is dry most of the time. The fields of cotton and corn that once surrounded the town are gone. Tellez is the only one who maintains a pasture and he can only do that because he has a well.  

 “I just like to see them,” he said of his two cows and horses. “I like to go feed them.”   

This spring a fire burned for a week through the salt cedar, leaving charred stumps and open land in its wake. It might be a chance for the grasslands to come back.  

So far, though, not much has happened. The open land just makes hiding from the Border Patrol agents harder.  

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.

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 7:55 a.m. 30.1389 -104.68376
#2 9:29 a.m. 30.13779 -104.68263
#3 11:32 a.m. 30.14169 -104.68021


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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