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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Don't drink the water, Day 183

Maria Hernandez, holding a bottle of purified water, waits for a bus in the city of El Cenizo, Texas, on Dec. 17. “You can’t drink the tap water here,” she said in Spanish. “You’ll get sick.” Photo by: Mike Kane

Photo journalist Mike Kane took on the story of unsafe drinking water coming from the Rio Grande while Colin caught up on miles. As the river flows from Piedras Negras/Eagle Pass to below Nuevo Laredo/Laredo, it becomes contaminated with 1,000 times the permissable level of E. coli bacteria. It is a constant public health threat.    

Maria Hernandez takes a drink from her bottle of purified water while waiting for a bus in El Cenizo, a small city and former colonia just south of Laredo.

“You can’t drink the tap water here,” she says in Spanish. “You’ll get sick.”

One of the first issues I heard about when I got to Laredo was water quality in El Cenizo and neighboring Rio Bravo. Recent tap water tests in both towns came back positive for unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria, prompting water boil alerts and explaining why so many people were getting sick. An investigation ensued and former Webb County water utilities director Johnny Amaya and others were indicted on charges of falsifying test results to conceal water-quality issues at the treatment plant.

Adding to the problem is just how bad the water is going into that plant. A few miles upstream, an estimated 2.9 million gallons of untreated sewage flow into the Rio Grande each day from a broken pipe in Mexico.

I attended the first of two town hall-style meetings hosted by the Webb County Water Utilities Department. The meetings were required by the Water Settlement Agreement between Webb County and the citizens of El Cenizo and Rio Bravo. It was one of the first opportunities for citizens to interact directly with county and plant officials since Amaya’s alleged wrongdoing came to light, and there was no holding back.

“We are poor,” Evanjalena Zuniga said to the panel. “We have to choose between buying clean water and drinking dirty water. I don’t have the resources to buy water on top of everything else. So we drink the dirty water.”

Zuniga, a mother of 5, has lived in El Cenizo for 10 years. Though she says the water is better now than in years past, she by no means trusts it completely. “Nineteen days ago my whole family was sick with diarrhea for four days,” she said. “It was the water.”

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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 10:54 a.m. 27.49978 -99.50732
#2 12:31 p.m. 27.46611 -99.48401
#3 1:03 p.m. 27.43609 -99.49484
#4 3:50 p.m. 27.32012 -99.53473


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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