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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A canyon to linger in, Day 129

Benjamin Weaver, on the left, and Jenna Tomlin paddle into the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon. Photo by: Colin McDonald

The 1,500-foot sheer walls of Santa Elena Canyon have been a mainstay of river guides along the Rio Grande for generations.   

The massive, immovable layers of limestone are carved like hand-cut stone by the persistence of moving water.  

This is the kind of place that national parks were created to protect so the public would come and see. It is a place I would feel guilty visiting without my fiance, Jenna. We spent two days floating through with our friend Benjamin Weaver in a raft offered to us by local guide Mike Long. He encouraged us to go slow. The 16 miles pass too fast if you paddle.   

It is the kind of place that, even when floating through with the knowledge of how giant river cane and truncated flows are changing the river’s ecosystem, it is nearly impossible to not let your jaw drop as you stare at the cliffs.   

Tomorrow, I will launch on the Rio Grande with 13 other paddlers to discover more of such places. The group is coming from both coasts and the Midwest with a set of skills and experiences ranging from professional kayaker Nick Gottlieb, who excels at running kayaks down rock-strewn waterfalls, to renewable-energy expert Dan Reicher, who was a member of the 1977 National Geographic and Dartmouth College-sponsored expedition of the full length of the Rio Grande. We also have Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, who spends his days advocating for rivers to function as rivers.  

Over dinner, we talked about national and international water policy, the Endangered Species Act, water pollution and whitewater. We are getting to know each other and so far this is what we have in common.   

But what we will bond over this upcoming week is the river. It is the reason we have all traveled so far. None of us want to pass up an opportunity to get on a river like this.

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


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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