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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Amistad Dam, Day 170

The clear water flowing out from the base of Amistad Dam appears green due to the plant growth on the river bottom. Photo by: Mike Kane

Amistad Dam was one of the last huge dams to be built in the United States. It is more than six miles long and 250 feet tall. After it was completed in 1968, it took four years to fill. In the process, it turned the flood- and drought-prone Rio Grande from a muddy perennial river into a regulated irrigation system.

Operated in partnership with Mexico, the dam was a pinnacle of cross-border cooperation. Tourists from both sides were once allowed to walk and ride bikes out to the middle where there is a trans-border conference room and plaza to take in the view. The dam’s operation manager, Pablo Garza, said that on a warm sunny day it was like a pier in San Francisco with all of the tourists strolling the walkway.

Now there are locked gates everywhere and those wishing to go out on the dam from the U.S. side have to go through customs if they wish to return.

“In my mind it tarnishes the relationship,” Garza said about the situation between the U.S. and Mexico. “Our posture is now a little more aggressive than theirs.”

Garza takes the dam’s name, friendship in Spanish, seriously and works closely with his counterpart in Mexico. He also extended a hand to us. He could not allow government vehicles to be used to help us portage around the dam but there were plenty of privately owned ones that could be used.

Captain Rich Cannon, who is in charge of security at the dam, met us as soon as we landed at the foot of the dam and help us load our gear into the back of a truck. After an interview with Garza and dam safety tech Paul Gibson, he drove us the 1.5 miles around the dam to a put in, stopping along the way so we could admire the sheer size of the cement walls and carved limestone.

We then launched into a clear and cold Rio Grande like we had never seen before. There was no mud. Plants and algae grew thick on the rocks because sunlight could now reach the river bottom. We could actually see the rocks that made the riffles. Before, the water was always the same uniform brown.

Later we would learn about how the altered river no longer supported several native fish populations and gave people a false sense of security to build in the floodplain and put in septic systems that then failed. 

But until then we just marveled at how natural and beautiful the totally controlled Rio Grande was as we paddled and waded through the clear water. 

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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 10:13 a.m. 29.37447 -100.88501
#2 2:30 p.m. 29.35449 -100.89053


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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