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 is old is new again, Day 105

David Lozano climbs out of an old reservoir that the Hudspeth County Conservation and Reclamation District No. 1 is excavating in the hope of using it to capture the water of flash floods. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

In 1918, Charles Newman wrote a letter to the Bureau of Water Engineers in Austin to ask for more time to finish an irrigation project near Fort Hancock. Every night, Carransistas, a faction of the Mexican Revolution, would fire across the border. He could not get a work crew to stay on the job site. 

“The parties we were expecting to send down to commence the work on the head gate declined to go,” Newman wrote in his letter. “I doubt if we can get anyone to work there.” 

Today, we are camping on the outskirts of Fort Hancock, in the boardroom at headquarters of the Hudspeth County Conservation and Reclamation District No. 1. The district now serves the same farmland that Newman’s project did. Shooting across the border is still an issue for work crews.   

“Things are about the same,” said the general manager of the district, Daniel Chavez. Chavez found Newman’s letter filed in a vault at the office.  

Chavez does a lot of digging around the past these days.   

He is digging out an old reservoir that spent the last 40 years buried under sediment carried by flash floods. 

The project was built in response to the drought of the 1950s, with the hope it could capture the water from flash floods. The project took constant maintenance and was abandoned as soon as the wet years returned.  

Now, drought is back and Chavez is sending backhoes and excavators to pull the sediment out of the old reservoir. 

He needs every drop he can get. This year he was able to deliver 3 inches of water per acre to the farms in the district. A normal allotment is 4 feet. As a result, 85 percent of the fields in the district are fallow.  

It is a reality of living at the tail end of the upper Rio Grande.  

When Elephant Butte Dam was built in 1916, the leaders of Hudspeth County voted to not be a part of the project. That way they avoided the taxes to pay for the dam. 

It meant they also had no right to the water. They would have to make do with whatever water El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 let pass through its irrigation ditches.   

In the wet years, that was plenty. But as the El Paso irrigation district gets more efficient at delivering water and with increased competition — even for the effluent coming from the sewer plants — there is less water to pass on to Hudspeth.   

We spent the morning riding in Chavez's truck, meeting farmers and seeing the district. We spent the afternoon walking 8 miles along the levee and the evening at a dinner for the 28th Annual Meeting of the Valley Gin Company. 

The gin processes all the cotton from the valley. Over brisket and sausage, we learned about families that grew up swimming and boating on the Rio Grande. We heard stories about alligators that may (or may not) have been taken from the river and mounted on a wall, a rancher who killed 14 mountain lions in a single year and the great flood of 2006 when farmers rerouted the river.   

It was good friends telling stories as they always have.  

Tomorrow morning we should be able to get to the bottom of the story about the flood, at least.

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

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 2:31 p.m. 31.28487 -105.8483
#2 4:05 p.m. 31.37842 -105.98459
#3 5:36 p.m. 31.32755 -105.94179


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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