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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The Problem, Day 34

Sen. Jeff Bingaman has dealt with water issues on the Rio Grande for 30 years. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

I spent today talking to folks in Santa Fe about water issues on the Rio Grande and in New Mexico. My head was spinning by the end of it, but here is the summary:

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman served New Mexico for 30 years until his retirement in 2013. He does not sugarcoat the issues on the Rio Grande:

•    The monitoring and metering of water use is inadequate.

•    Water rights are not defined.

•    The court system for resolving water disputes is antiquated and ineffective.

“We are going into a period of scarcity,” he said, as we had coffee near his office in Santa Fe. “It’s going to get worse.”

Author William deBuys is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and his most recent book, “A Great Aridness,” examines the impact of climate change on the Southwest. He adds to the list of troubles:

•    As cities conserve water by convincing residents to remove lawns and irrigation systems and then use the water savings to allow more growth, they are losing the ability to reduce demand during a drought.

•    The region is subject to mega droughts that can last for 10 years or more.

•    The major bureaucracies that control and distribute the water of the Rio Grande have little motivation to change.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to pay the piper,” he said in a phone interview, describing the inevitability of major drought coming to the region and climate change raising the average temperatures, which will increase demand and reduce supply.

Kyle Harwood is a water lawyer who has dealt with water issues in Santa Fe for 15 years. He has great respect for Bingaman and deBuys. But he asks: When has water not been a problem in the West, especially New Mexico?

“That sounds a lot like the last 100 years to me,” he said about the problems listed by both.

Harwood doesn’t disagree that changes are coming. Economies will have to shift. Jobs will be lost. People will have to move. There will be hardship.

But it’s never been easy living in the desert.

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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 7:14 p.m. 35.90514 -106.30554


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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