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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Time to go to work, Day 106

Craige Miller, left, and his brother Jim Ed Miller, talk about their farm. They meet almost every morning before sunrise to discuss what needs to be done. The white boards behind them show each section of land they have in production and what is on it. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

There is little the Miller brothers haven’t seen in the valley below El Paso. Their great uncle started the farm that is now their 2,482-acre operation.    

They tend to take things into their own hands. They have made citizen arrests of drug smugglers and drunks, taught Border Patrol agents the basics of tracking and used their own equipment for middle-of-the-night work to protect levees from floods.

They are Democrats and have breakfast almost every morning with Republicans. They are all friends. They don’t have much of a choice if they want to have breakfast. In Fort Hancock, there is only one restaurant, with not too many tables. 

Jason Jones, David Lozano and I spent the morning walking eight miles on the levee. Meanwhile, Erich Schlegel went out with Craige, the younger brother, and Jim Ed, the older, to see them drop a new pump down an old well.  

The well was drilled decades ago to purposefully draw down the water table. At the time, the problem was too much water in the valley.  

Now, the water table has dropped and too little water is the problem. The Millers are trying to repurpose the well. It’s a long shot, but it’s better than sitting around idle. 

They know about the forecasts for less water and changing weather patterns. But they have a farm to run right now and there is work to do.  

Physical labor is a common denominator across the valley that gets respect.  

Just the fact that we are walking seems to open up doors.    

After the hike, we met with Bobby Copeland. In the early 1980s, Copeland was the man in charge of the International Boundary and Water Commission’s efforts to clear the channel of the Forgotten Reach.   

He spent 30 days walking the roughly 150 miles between Fort Quitman and Presidio to map out where the river was being blocked. He then was in charge of the custom built swamp cats — amphibious backhoes from Louisiana that were then used to dredge a new channel.  

“It would have been beautiful,” he said.    

But contractors went broke trying to work in the remote terrain, the funding was cut, the mowing stopped and the salt cedar reclaimed the disturbed lands.  There was not enough water to justify the expense.  

Copeland did not give us good odds of getting to Presidio by Oct. 16. The brush is just too thick to make the 14 miles a day we need.

But we are decent at walking and like a challenge.  We also don’t have to crawl through the brush like Copeland did. I’m not above walking the road. We just need to see the river. We are not here to rebuild it.

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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 10:00 a.m. 31.31647 -105.90239
#2 11:39 a.m. 31.27382 -105.85466
#3 12:18 p.m. 31.25218 -105.83937
#4 12:47 p.m. 31.24043 -105.81863
#5 6:28 p.m. 31.28487 -105.84827
#6 6:47 p.m. 31.28487 -105.84825
#7 6:52 p.m. 31.28489 -105.84827
#8 6:57 p.m. 31.28487 -105.84825
#9 7:02 p.m. 31.28489 -105.84827
#10 7:07 p.m. 31.2849 -105.84825
#11 7:12 p.m. 31.28489 -105.84827
#12 7:17 p.m. 31.28486 -105.84825
#13 7:18 p.m. 31.28487 -105.84827


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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