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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Too much rain, Day 140

Castle Butte, an easily recognized landmark along the Rio Grande, can be seen through the heavy mist and rain that has soaked this reach of the Rio Grande for the last two and a half days. Photo by: Jessica Lutz

In the last 72 hours it has rained for at least 60. We have seen the sun for all of 30 seconds.

At first, the clouds and constant mist were a pleasant break from the heat and harsh light of the desert. I felt like I was back home in the Pacific Northwest.

Then clothes became saturated, tents failed to keep sleeping bags dry and hypothermia became a very real issue to contend with.

Yesterday we broke camp, packed the wet gear and made a mad dash for Hot Springs Rapid only to discover that Louis Aulbach’s guidebook to the Lower Canyons is correct. The springs are a lukewarm 85 degrees. They have enough heat to stop teeth from chattering, but not for long.

Sitting in the pools as minnows nibbled at our barley submerged legs, we complained until cold reality forced us to seek shelter. I gave my dry tent to Jessica and set up under an overhang in the cliffs above our camp.

Now the rain has stopped and I’ve gotten a chance to climb up to the south rim of the canyon to send out this post.

The canyon we are staying at the mouth of is a popular route for those wishing to cross the Rio Grande.

Yesterday, we met Jesse Pena and Antonio Hernandez as they were traveling south.  Soaked to the skin, they were all smiles and not bothered by the oven- and refrigerator-sized boulders that had just fallen off the canyon wall. It was the second slide I had seen that day.

That’s what happens when it rains in the canyons, they explained to me before heading to their own overhang to start a fire and warm up. They would spend the night there and then hike on to Pena’s ranch near the head of one of the side canyons.  They see gringos on the river all the time. Hernandez said it is especially popular with Boy Scouts.

We took it as advice and are doing our best to be prepared and not do anything dumb.

Although the rain has stopped, the river continues to rise.  It’s already 6 or 7 feet above what it was when we got off and it continues to creep up. It’s the color of a latte and so thick with sediment that even the caps of the crashing waves stay brown.

In front of our campsite are standing waves steep and high enough to put our 18-foot canoe on end. We talk about what line we would take through them to avoid the biggest waves as we watch small trees float by. We both know, however, that we are going to stay at our high camp until the river calms down.

Sudden rises of the river like this are common. A group of firefighters from Austin are upstream from us. They’re on their annual trip through the Lower Canyons. The organizer of the group, Craig Walker, has been doing trips like this in West Texas for almost 30 years. He said he has seen the river rise as much as 8 feet overnight.

But that is part of the charm of the Lower Canyons. You come out and deal with whatever mood the river is in.

For Walker and his friends, the trip is ten days of eating well, catching catfish, telling stories and floating through canyons. He won’t let anyone call him chief while he is out. That’s only for work when he is back in the city.

“It completely clears your mind coming out here,” he said.

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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 9:00 a.m. 29.7461 -102.54507
#2 11:37 a.m. 29.74599 -102.54507
#3 2:58 p.m. 29.74601 -102.54504


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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