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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Crossing the Rio Grande, Day 182

With inner tubes, four people swim and wade across the Rio Grande and enter into the United States via a park in downtown Laredo. Photo by: Colin McDonald

Despite the fences, helicopters, trucks, motion sensors and cameras, it is apparently not too difficult to cross the Rio Grande unnoticed.  

As I paddled into Laredo at dusk, I saw a group of four people with inner tubes wade and float across the chest-deep river.  

A white Border Patrol truck was parked less than a quarter mile away and did not move.   

I was stumped. I wanted to get to the bridge and put the 42 miles of paddling behind me.  The folks crossing did not see me until they were climbing out on the U.S. side where they crouched below the 10-foot riverbank.  We stared at each other for a moment.   

It was the second group I had seen that day. The first was a gathering of about 40 who were sitting on the Mexican bank on a much wider and deeper reach of the river. The air temperature was in the low 50s and the water was about the same. It was not a good day for a swim.  Some of them tried to hide behind the brush, but the group was so large, there was no point.   

The only member of the group with a jacket, and the fattest, stood up and asked in Spanish if I was fishing.  It’s by far the most common question I’m asked from either bank.  If I say no, the people asking always seem disappointed.   

I did not want to cause problems with fat jacket man so I lied and said I was fishing while I made my way to the gulf.   

He gave me a big smile and a thumbs-up sign. I never stopped paddling. 

Later on, I rounded a river bend to see a man with a pistol strapped to his leg and wearing full camouflage. He was crouched behind a camera and taking photos of me.   

James Boyd is a police officer in Laredo and he never goes to the river unarmed.  He told me he usually carries a rifle as well but did not want to scare me.  He has been following this blog. He decided to take a break from his hobby of shooting photos of whitetail deer along the Rio Grande to take photos of me on the river.  

He is a self-described border rat. He grew up in McAllen and worked as a police officer in Del Rio and Laredo for 20 years.   

“They are just going to think you are a crazy gringo,” he said of folks who see me on the river.  

I gathered he thought the same. Then he said he was envious of the project.     

Between the thumbs-up from the first group and Boyd’s assessment, I felt a bit bolder with the second group.  

The only reason I saw them in the failing light was because I was trying to get a photo of the Laredo skyline.  They were moving quickly and I passed them just as they reached the United States.  

So we looked at each other for a moment.  I motioned that I would be quiet and kept paddling.  

Again, the apparent leader of the group called out to me.  This time he gave the peace sign.  

In less than a minute they were gone, scrambling up the bank and into a white van. I watched them go and then docked my canoe on the Border Patrol boat ramp.

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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 7:48 a.m. 27.78993 -99.84936
#2 9:09 a.m. 27.73594 -99.79712
#3 10:17 a.m. 27.70006 -99.74551
#4 10:39 a.m. 27.68298 -99.73111
#5 11:19 a.m. 27.66073 -99.69794
#6 12:05 p.m. 27.64622 -99.65848
#7 1:26 p.m. 27.6377 -99.61423
#8 3:17 p.m. 27.6135 -99.55692
#9 4:21 p.m. 27.56713 -99.51263
#10 5:30 p.m. 27.50198 -99.52771
#11 5:34 p.m. 27.49913 -99.51138


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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