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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A lot of work, Days 135 and 136

Joaquin Sanchez gives a tour of his garden in front of his house. He grows the flowers because he likes how they look and to give them to friends. Photo by: Jessica Lutz

I picked the sandbar — at the base of a cliff on Mexico’s side of the Rio Grande — last night because I thought it would be a quiet spot.  We had spent Saturday morning interacting with customs, ferry captains, guides and the people of Boquillas. I was looking for a bit of solitude.

But less than minute after we landed, William Gonzales galloped up on his horse on his commute back to Boquillas.  He had spent the last five days working with his brother and a friend at a candelilla camp and had run out of food. He was also set to row the ferry back and forth across the Rio Grande the next day to bring tourists to town. He would ride along the river until the cliffs forced him to swim his horse across and upstream.

Outside of ranching, harvesting wax from candelilla plants is one of the oldest industries along this reach of the Rio Grande. The basic operation is to rip out the tubular plants and then smash them while they boil in a mild acid. The wax floats to the top, is scraped off the surface and then set aside to dry.

After a week of work, the three men produced about 75 kilos of wax, which was hauled out by two burros the day before we arrived. The men expect to sell the wax for $4 a kilo. That comes out to $20 a day for each of the men. The wax they sell is used in products ranging from lip gloss to fake flowers.

The next morning, Jessica and I paddled off to find the camp and were met by Fidencio Gonzales, William’s older brother.

“What you make in a day in the U.S. you make here in a month,” Fidencio said.

Fidencio is no stranger to hard work. He is one of the Diablos, a famous crew of firefighters the U.S. government occasionally hires to fight forest fires across the West. Fidencio has worked in California and Montana. He loves the work, but there hasn’t been enough fire or the political will to bring the Diablos across the river recently. Fidencio has not worked for three years.

So he collects wax and fishes a bit. Today, he will go looking for burros that have either escaped or are wild. It’s similar to the stories we heard in town.

Joaquin Sanchez Luna is 84 years old. He grew up and lived on a ranch 8 miles outside of town. He commuted to the oil fields of West Texas occasionally to work, but what he wanted to do was tend to his goats.

Then the well went dry and he had to move to town. Now he plays guitar and sings in town for tips from the tourists. It’s not his favorite work. He also tends to a small garden that he keeps going by saving water in old pop bottles. Drinking water is delivered to homes for three days and then not delivered for three days. His flowers do best if they get water every day.

It’s a good life, he said. He hopes the well on his ranch comes back soon so he, or someone, can go back to ranching the land.

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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 1:34 p.m. 29.26081 -102.90637
#2 4:09 p.m. 29.36183 -102.84003


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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