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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Quemado, Day 173

Tony Castaneda, our host, will happily spend all afternoon in his backyard grilling perfect steaks and ribs, despite the fact that the Rio Grande is less than 100 yards away and he lives along a popular smuggling route. Photo by: Mike Kane

Kay Cunningham is not someone who scares easily.   

At 72-years-old, she respects rattlesnakes and gives them a wide berth when she sees them. 

“But I don’t run screaming when I do,” she said.  

After spending a day in Quemado with our hosts Tony and Catherine Castaneda, it seems there are few here who startle easily.   

Retired boxer Joe “the left hook artist” Lopez lives downtown. He is now known as Walking Joe because he slowly strolls the two blocks between the café and general store with a cane. He traveled the country hitting and being hit before deciding to retire where he was born. It’s where he fits in.  

Immigrants come through town and the surrounding farms and ranches in groups of 40 or more. Smugglers fleeing from U.S. Border Patrol agents drop bales of marijuana.  Wild hogs run rampant in the brush. Escaped alligators show up in the river. Some are as long as 16 feet. 

The agents are heavily armed and constantly on the move.  

At any moment there is the potential for something tragic to happen.  

But it rarely does.   

Local political issues include a debate over whether the irrigation district should sell Rio Grande water to oil and gas companies to be used for fracking or for a proposed open pit mine.    

Cunningham says no.  

“Why sell water for oil and gas when it seems we are getting less rain?” she said. “The district is there for the farmers. That’s how the people who irrigate feel about it.”  

Her family has lived in Maverick County since before it was a county. Border Patrol has a security tower on her ranch. She watches smugglers while out birding.  Life goes on.  

“The alternative is to live in your house with the doors and windows locked,” she said. “I don’t want to live like that. … The world is dangerous, but not that dangerous.”  

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 10:58 a.m. 28.92665 -100.63293


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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