Disappearing Rio Grande

New? Start here.

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.

Read more

Little Bugs Bring Big Changes to Forest, Day 7

The burned trunks of dead spruce trees are all that remain of the forest that stood above the Rio Oxbow Ranch. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Bugs killing trees is nothing new, but right now there are few trees not feeling the pressure in the headwaters of the Rio Grande.   

Of the 560,000 acres of spruce forest in the Rio Grande National Forest, 500,000 are infested with beetles, said Mike Blakeman, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. The stands of healthy trees we saw up by Stony Pass were some of the last holdouts.   

“They are still working on cleaning up,” he said of the beetles.  

The spruce forest that has cloaked these hills for the last several hundred years is going away.  Hard droughts in 2000 and 2002 weakened trees that were then attacked by beetles that had been feasting on blown down trees.   

The following wet years were outnumbered by the dry ones and the trees couldn’t produce enough sap to flush out the beetles, Blakeman said. 

Alpine meadows and aspen groves will most likely replace the burned out forests, like the ones we walked through above the Rio Oxbow Ranch that are pictured above.  

Seeing how the aspens are already sprouting in the burned areas, it is easy to imagine they now have free rein of the forests. But an outbreak of tent caterpillars is stripping many of them of their leaves.

It is not understood why the populations of tent caterpillars will suddenly explode, but the populations here have been growing each year for the past three years, according to the Forest Service. This spring boom is so large that the wheels of a truck parked in the forest can become covered with the critters in less than an hour.   

“We can’t predict when this tent caterpillar outbreak will end,” said Kirby Self, acting vegetation management specialist for the Rio Grande National Forest in a press release. “We’re hoping it will happen sooner rather than later.”   

And so life goes on and everyone waits to see which trees will survive.  

In the meantime, we are staying in the bunkhouse of Nancy Butler, the director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. Tomorrow we will be back on the river.   

Every afternoon the river is teaming with bug hatches. It is a feeding frenzy for trout and fishermen alike.

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 2:10 p.m. 37.68197 -106.57791


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.


Jessica Lutz
Mike Kane
Project Editor
Barbara Hosler
Copy Editor
News Apps Team Lead | @rdmurphy
Google Journalism Fellow | @jessihamel
Web Designer | @been_hussln
Editor | @ATXjj