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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A River of Mud, Day 35

Colin McDonald hauls his kayak over the growing delta that is building at the head of Cochiti Reservoir. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

For two weeks, we have ridden a river so thick with mud we could watch it change the shape of the river channel.

Every afternoon rainstorm brought sediment pouring into the river from the side canyons and arroyos. The next morning, as the river level dropped, the banks would be coated with fresh mud the consistency of pudding.

We would sink down to our shins until our feet came to rest on the solid ground below the fresh mud. Or we would sink until our legs provided enough flotation.

That river of mud comes to end here at the Cochiti Reservoir.

Built as a flood control dam, this five-mile-long earthen dam is responsible for stopping the flooding of Albuquerque. The consequence was that it destroyed several thousand archeological sites as it inundated White Rock Canyon and submerged half of the farmlands the Cochiti Pueblo had used for the last 700 years.

But that’s a story for next week.  What we saw today was the reservoir’s greatest weakness:  it’s filling up with dirt.

As we entered the lake, the brown, silt-packed river was sliding in underneath the green water of the lake.  Two miles later, the water leaves the reservoir but the sediment stays behind and the reservoir keeps getting shallower.

If nothing is done, the delta the river is building at the head of the reservoir will reach the dam.  Then the river will do what it does best and start cutting away at anything that stands before it.

The Rio Grande has cut through volcanoes, lava flows and entire mountain ranges.  In the geologic time frame, the dam’s odds of sticking around are not good.

But today the dam is doing well and we hauled our boats over and through the mud of the delta when we could not find water deep enough to float us.

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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 10:30 a.m. 35.80998 -106.20374
#2 11:18 a.m. 35.80959 -106.20087
#3 12:18 p.m. 35.8037 -106.19411
#4 1:29 p.m. 35.77038 -106.21861
#5 2:03 p.m. 35.77006 -106.22105
#6 2:52 p.m. 35.74433 -106.26093
#7 5:21 p.m. 35.67537 -106.31107
#8 5:57 p.m. 35.65732 -106.30603
#9 6:58 p.m. 35.63619 -106.32214


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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