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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Growing grass to save water, Day 126

A windmill drawing up groundwater spins over a grassland of sideoats grama, the Texas state grass and excellent feed for livestock. It also can help build up top soil. Photo by: Colin McDonald

The 150 cows of the Mimms Ranch outside of Marfa probably don’t know it, but they are working on a project to reduce sediment and increase the flows of the Rio Grande.  

The usual story about cows and desert rangeland is that the cows eat the grass, the dirt gets exposed, the wind and rain wash away the dirt and the grass never comes back.  

But on the Minns Ranch, which is a demonstration ranch for the Dixon Water Foundation, the cows are moved every couple days so that they don’t get a chance to eat and trample the vegetation down to bare earth.  

The grass then has a chance to regrow.  And because the grasses of the plains evolved with herds of grazing animals chomping down on them, it actually grows more.  

The increased grass comes with increased roots, which build up the soil. That anchored soil and the grass help slow down the erosion caused by the water and wind. The end result is that flash floods carry less sediment and more water infiltrates into the aquifers, which then helps keep the springs flowing.   

“We are building a virtuous cycle here,” said Robert Potts, the president and CEO of the nonprofit foundation.  

Although the ranch is more than 100 miles away from the river, that cycle makes people like geologist Kevin Urbanczyk very happy.   

In less than 20 years, he has seen mud banks on the Rio Grande grow by more than 15 feet.   

“The river is essentially choking on its own sediment,” Urbanczyk said.  

That cycle is now moving more in the vicious direction, but it’s not all bad news. There are some bright lights on the horizon.  

Tomorrow, we will launch into Santa Elena Canyon, arguably the most beautiful canyon on the whole river. It’s hard to believe it’s all bad when you are floating between stone walls 1,500 feet high. I'll share the photos on Monday.  

If you like what you have seen so far on this blog, please consider buying a sticker, T-shirt or print from our Kickstarter page. It will close by the end of the week and we will start shipping out the thank-you-gifts the week before Thanksgiving. 

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 6:21 a.m. 29.31937 -103.59619
#2 7:35 p.m. 30.35618 -103.66562


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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