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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Sewer and coal, Day 178

White foam from the Piedras Negras sewer outfall floats on the surface of the Rio Grande. Photo by: Mike Kane

From a hilltop in a half-completed housing development outside of Eagle Pass, George Baxter can look across the Rio Grande into Piedras Negras and check on the status of an open-pit coal mine. 

The edge of the pit is less than a half mile from the Rio Grande. The semitrucks that haul out the black rock look like toys. The piles and cliffs of cut earth are large enough to almost look natural.

“It’s larger than the last time we were here,” Baxter said. “They seem to go in fits and starts.”   

It’s been that way for more than a century on both sides of the river. Piedras Negras is named after the seams of black rock under the region. Subdivisions on the U.S. side are named after closed mines.      

Baxter does not like the mine in Mexico because of the dust and threat to the Rio Grande. He has dedicated his retirement to fighting an almost identical mine outside of Eagle Pass. The Mexican company that is developing the plan would ship the low-grade coal by train to power plants 30 miles south of the border.   

Baxter can see those smoke stacks as well from his vantage point. The prevailing winds push the plumes they emit into the United States. 

Baxter and his wife, Martha Baxter, have become self-taught experts in state and county regulations as they do everything they can to delay or stop the pit mine in Texas. 

It’s not an easy fight, nor one that is limited to the U.S.  

“There has always been coal mining,” said Sergio Treviño, the former mayor of Piedras Negras. “I opposed it very much. We stopped it for a while.”  

Mike and I spent Friday morning in Piedras Negras and Friday afternoon in Eagle Pass. We were looking at the impacts of coal mines and talking to people about them. We spent Sunday paddling the river.   

For Treviño and Baxter, the politics of the permitting process has been crucial and it’s where they have focused their efforts. Neither one is impressed with the protections, nor promises, their state and federal regulators provide. 

From the river, it was hard to tell if the mines have had much of an impact.  

Then we saw the sewer outfall for Piedras Negras. For a quarter mile the Mexican bank of the river was coated in bright white bubbles.   

Mike said it smelled like the unkempt bathroom of a laundromat. 

We asked some fishermen casting lines less than a mile downstream of the sewer discharge pipes what they thought about the foam and the mines.  They said the river was clean and the bubbles were just from the effluent splashing as it poured out of the pipes and into the river.  

Then an airboat went by. Its wake splashed into the banks and turned the water black and brown with the stirred up sediment.   

The river became riddled with air bubbles rising from the mud. The smell was putrid.  

It was the kind of place that seemed easy to pollute and we paddled away as quickly as we could. 

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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 11:25 a.m. 28.72346 -100.50003
#2 12:45 p.m. 28.69175 -100.50998
#3 3:23 p.m. 28.61525 -100.44553
#4 5:08 p.m. 28.6103 -100.44302


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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