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.Read more
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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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.
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|
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.