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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Midpoint, Day 131

: From left to right, Dave Parker, Billy Blackstock, Bob Irvin, Fred St. Goar, Nat Cobb, Nick Gottlieb, Dan Reicher, Peter Serrurier, Sach Hubbard, Jon Adams, Greg Serrurier, Colin McDonald and Mike Long, pose for a photo on the Rio Grande. Photo by Crystal Allbright Photo by: Crystal Allbright

As close as I can tell, I’m halfway to the Gulf of Mexico. Ahead is the most wild and rugged reach of the river and the most urbanized. 

It’s going to be an adventure. To help kick it off, I’m paddling with the most accomplished group of paddlers I have ever been a part of. The guides have more than 100 years of experience between them on the Rio Grande. The guests have first descents in China and California. The youngest member, Nick Gottlieb, is seriously contemplating paddling 240 miles through the Grand Canyon in less than 24 hours.   

Our conversations on the banks of the river range from what it is like to see crocodiles pull down wildebeests in Africa and to paddling amongst the icebergs in Alaska to working the halls of Congress.   

I’ve shared my observations from the Rio Grande with them and asked how they compare to what they have seen and experienced.  

The general conclusion is that while the Rio Grande, like almost all other rivers, is highly altered with dams, levees and diversions, it is incredibly resilient and constantly working to restore itself.  

In addition to the natural process of rivers to fill lakes with sediment and cut through barriers of any kind, the public perception of the role of rivers is changing.   

 “We have found there is a growing recognition, even among the winners in water allocation, that the system is broken and in the long run there are no winners," said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, who is along for this paddle.   

Across the country and around the world, rivers are coming back after being buried in culverts or polluted to the point of toxicity. Decisions are being made to see the river as a complete system, instead of a resource to reach a specific goal, like delivering water to farm fields or removing pollution from a city. 

Rivers can do these things very well, but when we focus on single goals and control, we miss out on the other benefits they can provide, such as recharging aquifers and farm fields, slowing floods and dampening droughts.   

“There is always hope for rivers,” said Irvin. “Even if we have dammed them, polluted them or diverted them, the river is still there.” 

We have done just about everything we can to the Rio Grande, and it is still here. It’s going to be fun to find out in what form over the next 800 miles.

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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 8:00 a.m. 29.0929 -103.48322
#2 8:10 a.m. 29.09289 -103.48318
#3 11:06 a.m. 29.07284 -103.46045
#4 1:08 p.m. 29.02313 -103.37943
#5 3:48 p.m. 29.01725 -103.33447
#6 4:54 p.m. 29.01337 -103.31091
#7 8:17 p.m. 29.01336 -103.31091


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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