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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The cowboy, Day 111

A nearly full moon sets over the Rio Grande Valley where thousands once lived when the river flowed all year. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Mann Bramblett is the youngest of three brothers. He says he always was the cowboy of the family.

“I was riding horses regularly when I was 6 years old,” he said. “When I quit riding horses, I’ll probably be dead.”

He says he went to the college of hard knocks. He grew up on this ranch and his parents ran cattle here before he did. His brothers went off to universities. One is now a lawyer and the other owns ranches in Australia. But running cattle on the land he knows is what Bramblett wants to do.

He is 80 years old. We spent the day checking on stock tanks, repairing pipe and inspecting cattle. As we did, Bramblett listed the strengths and weaknesses of the cutting horse he has owned and how he got them. He says he has developed the gift of seeing a calf once and recognizing it again the next year.

It’s a good skill to have when your ranch touches a border that animals don’t recognize.

There is a loose agreement that cattle and horses from both sides are returned to their owners. But neither side honors that to a T when the animal is good looking and does not have a brand, Bramblett explained. It all depends on the company you are with when you find the animal.

And going across the river always has had its difficulties. When Bramblett was in high school, he and his older brother were told some of their cattle were in Mexico.  Their father thought it was an odd story, but Bramblett and the middle brother, Kit Bramblett, went anyway.

The father was right. The two boys were kidnapped and held for a ransom of $5,000 each. Bramblett said the motivation for the kidnaping was clear. It was near Christmas time. The money was needed.

Mostly folks along the river look out for one another. When we camped in the driveway of his mother’s house, which is now used as an outpost on the 22,400-acre property, Bramblett got a call from friends in Mexico. Our campfire was close to the house and they were concerned. It looked like the building was on fire.

When Border Patrol asks Bramblett to report suspicious activity, he reminds them that that is not his job. He lives on the border and troublemakers rarely last long here.

There are also just fewer people around.

The Rio Grande stopped flowing in 1949, Bramblett said. There were a couple floods, but the wide river with a sandy bottom is gone. So are the cotton fields it supported — along with the 2,000 to 3,000 people that lived on both sides of the river.

Now, even at the tail end of this wet monsoon season, the river lies at the bottom of an entrenched channel of mud, surrounded by a thicket of dead salt cedar.

I’ve been studying maps this evening, trying figuring out the best way to get through that thicket. Just as I was finishing, I got a call from Kit on the ranch’s landline.

Just before the U.S. entered World War II, a German visited the ranch. He was also following the river. He ended up staying for a week, helping out where he could and recovering from his walk.

During all that time, Kit said he would not let anyone look inside his backpack.

Kit’s father told the young man that was fine, but when he crossed over the mountains to follow the river, the Mexicans would want to see and he should let them.

The German apparently did not take the advice. A week later he was dead. His backpack was full of maps he was making of the border.

Kit’s advice to me was to stay on the north side of the river and not stop. That’s advice I plan to take.

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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 12:19 p.m. 30.73141 -105.09227
#2 1:14 p.m. 30.72863 -105.0919
#3 2:02 p.m. 30.69319 -105.05815
#4 3:48 p.m. 30.72965 -105.03702
#5 11:32 p.m. 30.69949 -105.06055


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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