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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San Felipe Del Rio, Day 171

Aleena Gonzales, 2, and her dad, Javier Gonzales, fish in San Felipe Creek. In the summer, the extended Gonzales family will spend all day swimming, fishing and picnicking near the springs. Photo by: Mike Kane

With her pink and purple Disney princess fishing rod, 2-year-old Aleena Gonzales settles into her dad’s lap and casts a line into San Felipe Creek. Her big sister, 7-year-old Deleya Gonzales, sits beside them in the shade and casts her own line.  

“This was a staple for me growing up,” said their father, Javier Gonzales. “Now I want to share it with them.” 

On hot summer days, hundreds of kids spend their days swimming and playing in the spring-fed creek that runs through Del Rio. The water that bubbles up from the ground exceeds drinking water standards. The abundant water supply in the middle of a desert is the reason the city exists. Water is so plentiful that a canal system runs through the city to carry it and residents flood irrigate their lawns. The rest of the water flows into the Rio Grande.   

“This is what defines Del Rio,” said City Councilman Mike Wrob. “Why would anyone want to pump it dry?” 

The reason is landowners in Del Rio and the surrounding Val Verde County have the potential to make a lot of money if they can export groundwater. The concern is, if the groundwater is pumped, then the aquifer will drop and the springs will dry up.   

The resulting tension leaves the City of Del Rio and Val Verde County on their third major attempt to form a groundwater district. Wrob is one of the leaders of that push.    

He was also our host in Del Rio and took us on a flight over the county so we could see the Rio Grande, the springs and the rivers and creeks they support.   

It is a unique place. The landscape is mostly limestone plateaus, small canyons and rolling hills. Cactus, agave and mesquite can handle the thin soils and scant rainfall, but few other plants can. The only lush areas are streaks of green where the springs emerge.  

Wrob feels like an underdog. He knows the work to keep groundwater in Val Verde County will probably never end. The big cities all want more water and have the votes and money.  

Wrob has a pretty spring that he thinks should be allowed to keep flowing.  

His strongest argument may come from Deleya. She loves spending her summers by the creek. It’s something her whole family can do together. 

“It’s awesome,” she 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 9:02 a.m. 29.3623 -100.99158
#2 10:46 a.m. 29.32683 -100.92554
#3 1:56 p.m. 29.2649 -100.84198
#4 2:42 p.m. 29.26163 -100.82532
#5 3:34 p.m. 29.2413 -100.7941
#6 6:21 p.m. 29.24025 -100.79462


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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