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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Jack Skiles, Day 146

A photo from the early 1930s shows one of the boats built for the Rio Grande by Jack Skiles' father, Guy Skiles Photo by: Jessica Lutz

Jack Skiles, 83, has taken boats down the Rio Grande since he was 10 years old. It was something his father liked to do. It’s now a family tradition that spans four generations.  

“The first boats were just homemade water boats,” Skiles said. “People would be just amazed I was floating ... It was considered dangerous. And in wooden boats it probably was.”  

After World War II, Skiles moved on to rubber rafts and eventually plastic canoes and metal skiffs.  

This weekend he did his first-ever fully catered raft trip, a three-day float through Santa Elena Canyon with his two sons and daughter.  

Skiles never seems to think the river is too dangerous. He grew up in Langtry on the banks of the river. When he was 10, the International Boundary and Water Commission paid him to take a weekly sample from the Rio Grande. When the river was flooding above 10 feet, he would get paid to take a sample every hour. He was paid $1 for each sample.  

“That was big money back then,” he said.  

So when the river flooded, he could be found perched in a cable car above the churning Rio Grande. He spent his time flipping through catalogs and making paper airplanes until it was time to lower another sample jar. 

To understand such risk tolerance, it is helpful to know Skiles’ family history and Langtry. His grandfather came out to the Rio Grande in 1905 to work as a cowboy on both sides of the river.  It was a time when revolution in Mexico was going strong and being heavily armed was part of the job description.  

This was right after the era of Judge Roy Bean, who dubbed himself the “law west of the Pecos.” Bean developed a national reputation for hosting illegal championship boxing matches and threatening to hang people for minor crimes, all while running a popular saloon in Langtry beside the railroad tracks.  

Skiles is an expert on Bean and the region. He wrote a book about both called “Judge Roy Bean Country” and is working on finishing a second. 

But that recent history is relatively banal in comparison to the violence and challenges of living in this region before modern settlement.  

Skiles’ house sits above a cliff that is home to caves that have sheltered people for more than 12,000 years. It is home to the largest buffalo jump in North America. Buried across his backyard is the complicated story — told in bones, ash layers, flood deposits and pollen counts — of people who lived with mammoths, saber-tooth cats and camels.      

Some time between 25 and 30 years old, Skiles realized that he and the other people collecting arrowheads and artifacts from the caves were making it more difficult to understand the full picture of how these people lived and what happened to them.  

He stopped digging and started to partner with archeologists. The site now attracts researchers from universities across Texas and as far away as Scotland who come to piece together the clues. There are more than 25 Ph.D.s working with data from the site.  

We arrived at Skiles’ place as a cold front was pushing the temperature below 40 degrees. Our hands and minds became progressively less useful as the temperature dropped and we worked in the mud to unload the canoe.   

The temperatures have not risen and my brain is still struggling with the concept of 12,000 years. We are going to stay here a day with the hope the temperature warms up a bit and we can gain a bit more perspective. 

Skiles understands. It takes a while to really appreciate the Rio Grande. 

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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 9:59 a.m. 29.78127 -101.75916
#2 2:00 p.m. 29.80472 -101.55051


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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