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

Classic Class V, Day 24

The Upper Box of the Rio Grande Gorge, part of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

American Whitewater describes the Upper Box of the Rio Grande Gorge as “truly one of the classic runs in the west.”

Southwest Paddler claims it is “the premiere whitewater run in New Mexico.”

In his guidebook “The Rio Grande,” Paul Bauer calls it “a big thrill for survivors.”

I ran it today with Matthew Gontram, Neil Cheesewright and Garret Schooley from New Mexico River Adventures.

For me, it was a chance to run rapids that I would never attempt by myself.

For them, it was an exploration run to see what it is like to run the river when flows were well below what is considered runnable. Neil and Garret did the run in a two-man raft. To put that in perspective, the recommended flows for a raft are 750 cubic feet per second. Today it was flowing at less than 280 cfs.

“It was more like 'see if we could do it,’” Matthew said.

The reason this run is so highly regarded is that the river here cuts through the deepest section of the Rio Grande Gorge. It exposes lava flows and the cones of extinct volcanoes and allows springs of cold, clean water to mix with the warm, brown water that flows out of Colorado.

In the canyon, the temperatures stay a bit cooler than up on the plateau and it serves as an oasis. Here, 500-year-old trees lean out over the river. We watched an owl swoop across the river and a red-tailed hawk flee from a swarm of cliff swallows.

This reach also packs more challenges per mile than any other on the Rio Grande.  The boulders form sieves that can trap an entire kayak and paddler completely underwater.  The rapids have names like “Hell Hole.” The banks have poison ivy.

But with Matthew leading the way — and making timely suggestions about when portaging around the rapids was probably better than dropping off a 5-foot waterfall onto a pile of rocks — we had a blast.

Even though it was the off-season for this reach and a below average year for water levels, the guides made it work.

“We always have enough flow,” Matthew said.

See a video of Colin dropping into Big Arsenic rapids.

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.

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.


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