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
Of all the rivers that flow out of Colorado, the Rio Grande is the most protected.
The river has one of the shortest paths out of the state and almost a third of that is in National Forest. But the other major reason the river is protected is that conservation groups began work before development pressure made protecting the land cost prohibitive.
One of the best examples of this work is the Rio Oxbow Ranch, which has six miles of river frontage on the Rio Grande, more than any other private landholding in Colorado.
The owners of the ranch, Alan and Patricia Lisenby, could have subdivided the ranch into more than 200 pieces and made millions selling them to Texans who wanted access to some of the best trout fishing in North America.
When they bought the ranch in the mid-1990s, they were competing with investors who wanted to do just that.
Dale Pizel, who grew up on the ranch and helped broker the sale, was instrumental in making sure the Lisenbys won.
“A guy, who represented professional athlete investors, asked me to send him a map showing how I would subdivide the ranch,” Pizel said. “Somehow I forgot to send that email.”
Pizel also convinced the Lisenbys that in order to protect the ranch in perpetuity they needed to put it in a conservation easement.
For Alan, it was all about the trout. The easement would help pay for the restoration work he was already doing on the six sweeping bends of the river that the ranch is named after. By teaming up with the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, he was able to tap into a network of federal, state and local expertise to help ensure that work on the river and how he grazed the cattle would all benefit the river and the fish.
“We did not want to make this a Disneyland trout stream,” Alan said. “We tried to make it look natural.”
By restoring an old oxbow of the river Alan was able to add three-quarters of a mile to the river, keep the water flowing and reduce the scouring of the banks.
The work was successful and Pizel now has the same job he did when he was 10, making sure the fishermen keep floating through and don’t trespass on the ranch. It is still some of the best trout fishing. The river is running clear and cold and the view of the valley is still full of sweeping pastures abutting steep mountains.
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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.
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.