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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Deep history, Day 167

Houston Dobbins stands by a cave on his family's ranch overlooking the Rio Grande. Photo by: Mike Kane

A century ago, Houston Dobbins’ great-great grandfather came to the Rio Grande and started a goat and sheep ranch on the shores of what is now Amistad Reservoir.  

Dobbins left for college and to work in the oil fields, but he could not stay away from the sheer limestone walls and rolling scrubland he grew up on. He returned to be Val Verde County’s agricultural extension agent and have a life not dictated by 12-hour shifts on drilling rigs.    

It will take us three days of paddling to pass all of the land, which is now divided up among Dobbins’ extended family. The ranch is not only huge, it contains two abandoned riverside train tunnels and some of the greatest examples of ancient rock art in North America. There is too much to see to paddle fast. 

The most famous site is Panther Cave. It is now part of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, which Dobbins’ family helped establish.

Because the lake made many of the caves, especially Panther Cave, accessible to anyone with a boat, they had to be protected with chain link fences. The park even claims to have the caves under video surveillance.    

Without such measures, the fear is people would try to add their own marks, chip out the art or just rub it off with their hands as they explored. For the last year, the caves have had the added protection of low lake levels.  

Amistad hit its lowest point since the dam was built in May of 2013. The exposed mud of the former lake bottom provided a practically impassable barrier. I heard horror stories of park staff and canoeists being stuck for hours and having to swim through the mud.  

That barrier is now gone, thanks to the rise of the lake following a wet fall. We were able to paddle to the foot of the old metal stairs up to Panther Cave. Climbing the overgrown and rusting stairs gave us the odd sense we were rediscovering the cave.  

It was not until we met Dobbins a couple miles downriver that I started to understand the history of the region and the scale of what is here. 

Dobbins called down to us from the cliffs. We had planned to meet a couple miles farther down, but we were behind schedule so he met us early.   

There was a small inlet that we could land the canoe in and then climb to the mesa overlooking the river. When we got to the top, he started to explain to us where we were and the length of human occupation of the region started to sink in.  

We were eating our lunch in front of a small cave with soot marks on the ceiling. In front of the cave were thousands of limestone rocks, all about the size of our hands. It was not a random pile. It was not the result of erosion of the cliffs.   

People living in the cave, Dobbins explained, had discarded each stone after using it. The rocks were heated in a fire, used for cooking or heating and then tossed out the front of the cave.  

What we had climbed up from the river was an enormous pile of what people had discarded from the cave. It would have taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years to create.  

“The rivers are really what I love about this place,” Dobbins said. “You have the Pecos, the Devils and the Rio Grande all at once.”  

It must have been what those who lived in the caves loved as well. They seem to be what keeps bringing people back to this land. 

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 7:40 a.m. 29.68731 -101.37131
#2 9:57 a.m. 29.66036 -101.36423
#3 11:42 a.m. 29.65944 -101.31311
#4 2:54 p.m. 29.64595 -101.2999
#5 5:11 p.m. 29.62473 -101.30713


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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