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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What to do when the canals run dry, Day 119

Abraham Madrano, center, and two friends chase carp in a drying irrigation ditch. It's a way to catch dinner and pass the time while they wait for water. Photo by: Jessica Lutz

Irrigating using water from the Rio Conchos, the Rio Grande’s largest tributary, is not easy. The flows are either too high or too low. When they are just right, the river can kick up so much sediment that the water is of no use.

When any of that happens, Abraham Madrano grabs some onion sacks, a few shovels and a pump and gets some friends to go fishing with him.   

The tactics are simple. When the canals are no longer filled, the carp and catfish gather in whatever water is left. Madrano and his friends just have to wade into those pools and catch the fish. If the chase and grab method does not work, they take the onion sacks and try to herd the fish to a place they can catch them.  

If that does not work, they turn on the pump and drain the pools.   

It’s fun work and without water there is not much Madrano can do on his family’s alfalfa farm.  

That was lucky break for us.  

Local guide Charlie Angell, photographer Jessica Lutz and Big Bend Sentinel/Presidio International reporter Sasha Von Oldershausen and I spent the day in Mexico talking to farmers and looking at water.  

Because there was not much of the latter to look at, the farmers we met had plenty of time to talk.  

Urbano Franco grew up just upstream of where the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos meet. The old rock-wall diversion dam that was built to bring water to his family’s land still stands. But the diversion structure is below 20 feet of dried mud. He said it has not carried water for 15 years. He now uses the old farm fields to run cattle and horses. 

He does have one field of cotton, irrigated with water he gets from the Rio Conchos. He has two more fields that are planted and waiting for the rain. It's all he can do.    

Tired, hot and dusty from looking at fields, Charlie suggested we take a little road trip down river to San Carlos to see the springs that flow out of the mountains just before Santa Elena Canyon.   

There is enough water to irrigate household gardens in the small town and no more. There is just enough water for swimming and to coat the canyon walls with ferns and grape vines.   

So that’s what we did. You have to take advantage of the water when you have it, after all.

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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 1:28 p.m. 29.50652 -104.76561
#2 3:11 p.m. 29.26097 -104.26654
#3 3:39 p.m. 29.10857 -103.91306
#4 4:28 p.m. 29.08435 -103.92722
#5 6:38 p.m. 29.14257 -103.93219


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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