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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Ranch is Managed to Protect the Rio Grande, Day 5

Dale Pizel crouches on a rock that he helped place to reduce erosion. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

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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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.


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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