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 hunt for water, Day 118

Charlie Angell stands among some of the rain catchment tanks he has installed in his home. Photo by: Jessica Lutz

There is no middle ground for water here, where the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos meet. 

The Rio Grande is flowing at 0 cubic feet per second above the confluence and more than 900 CFS below. A couple of weeks ago, the riverbed was carrying 10,000 CFS toward Mexico. 

I’m staying with local guide Charlie Angell. At his house, he has rigged up tanks to capture 6,400 gallons of rainwater. He gets 10 gallons a week for drinking from town and everything else is off the rain. When the droughts come, he takes sponge baths and cuts back on shaving. But he gets by.   

This afternoon, I interviewed a farmer who came for a visit. The farmer had recently planted a pecan orchard. When they mature, pecan trees need six feet of water per acre a year to reach their peak productivity.

The region averages 10 inches a year. The farmer has enough water rights to make up the difference by pumping from the river.  

When it rains here it floods. When the droughts come, towns disappear. 

Today we toured an abandoned dairy and the town of Adobe along the Rio Grande upstream from Presidio. Tomorrow we plan to go into Mexico to look at waterfalls.  

Those who have water take it for granted. Those who don’t, worship it.  

I’ve been asked to write more about what it was like to walk from Indian Hot Springs to Candelaria. It was an adventure. I got to climb cliffs and pick my way through rough country. I followed trails that were barely indents in the ground but had probably been used for thousands of years. I started with almost two gallons of water in my backpack and drank deeply to lighten the load as quickly as possible. 

When I was low on water, I dreamed all night of being offered some and then having it taken away. I had spent an afternoon following false leads trying to find water.  

When three cowboys came by my camp early the following morning and asked if I had seen their cows, I was too confused and ashamed to ask if they knew where I could get water.  

In less than two hours of walking under a cloudless sky, I had transitioned from taking water for granted to worshiping it. I found a well, but the water was salty. I tried to distill it, but realized my methods and timing would do me little good.  

Then I found a spring.  

A week later, I am still hoarding my water, even when I have plenty to drink and even shower.   

I don’t know how to find a balance for my own water use. I wonder how it could be possible for a region like this, with two countries, two rivers and such a gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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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 8:13 p.m. 29.7394 -104.53464


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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