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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Lake mud, Day 148

The tractor that once worked Skiles’ farm fields along the Rio Grande now sits on top of silt. Photo by: Jessica Lutz

In 1954, a flood washed away the farm that Jack Skiles’ father maintained along the edge of the Rio Grande in Langtry.  

That flood spurred the construction of Amistad Dam, and by the 1970s, the Skiles family had a motorboat for water skiing tied up above where the tractor was parked.  

Then the mud started to accumulate as the dirt and rocks, once carried past their home by the Rio Grande, settled onto the bottom of what is now Amistad Reservoir.   

“Silt ruined our fishing,” Skiles said. “It ruined our springs. It is all covered up now with 10 to 15 feet of silt.”  

After every major rise and fall of the lake, another layer of silt is left on top of the old farm fields. Each time, the choice has to be made to either let the tractor start to disappear below the mud or to lift it up.

The family said goodbye to the fishing holes and springs decades ago. The silt is so thick it has filled in where the ski boat once floated. The tractor is all that remains of the time before the mud.  

“My family sort of likes that tractor, so every couple of years we go down there and jack it up,” Skiles said.  

Because Amistad is low, the Rio Grande is again a flowing river as it passes the Skiles home, but it has a much different style. There are almost no rocks to navigate around, just blocks of mud and clay. The banks are clear of vegetation as the rise and fall of the lake make it impossible for plants to get established.  

We reluctantly left the warmth of the Skiles’ home and the exploration of Eagle Nest Canyon on Friday afternoon. We were hoping the afternoon sun would warm the day up and make the miles easier.  

It did not.  

We were unable to bear the thought of setting up camp in the mud or being exposed to the wind, which would make us shiver all night. We held out for a cave like the ones in Eagle Nest Canyon where people were living more than 12,000 years ago. We wanted something facing south for protection from the wind and a large, level floor.  

We got lucky and found a 30-foot overhang that faced south over the river.  It stayed warm well after the sun had set. I did not even set up a tent. 

It was a perfect campsite.

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

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 2:30 p.m. 29.80804 -101.54883
#2 4:01 p.m. 29.76884 -101.51682


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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