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
Mike and Marilyn Willett have run a cattle ranch at the south end of the San Luis Valley since 1971. Their herd is usually about 450 head, but the persistent drought has made them slim that number down to 350.
Although they are dependent on surface flows to flood irrigate their hay fields and have seen springs dry up as the aquifer drops, Mike is not quick to blame farms that pump groundwater. He has served for more than 25 years on water boards across the valley and has lived through the history that shapes the current issues.
“It’s just hard to quantify how much harm the wells have done and how much harm the drought has,” he said. He points out that the aquifer did not start to drop significantly until the drought started in 2002.
But he is not jealous of his neighbors and their wells. One is running a tilapia fish farm with the warm water of an artesian well. With the formation of sub-districts, such well owners will be charged for that pumping.
“They have been on a free ride,” Mike said.
Mike points out that drought and new regulations are nothing new for the valley. Down the road from his home is a small acequia community; the acequia is a communally owned and operated ditch.
Mike explained that members of the community thought they had it good because they were the only ones who drew from a reliable spring. They were late to register their water right and when the Rio Grande Compact was set in 1938, it was determined their spring was needed for part of the water deliveries to New Mexico. Suddenly, what was considered a secure water right was not.
Now the community is nearly gone. Hay fields have replaced the labor-intensive fields of vegetables that once supported families and required reliable water.
Such is life in a valley where enough rain to keep the dust down on the road is noteworthy. And rainbows — like the one pictured above that we saw while driving around the Willetts' ranch — form in rainstorms that never touch the ground.
Tonight, I am camping on the Willetts' ranch near the confluence of the Conejos River and the Rio Grande. I can hear horses crashing through the cottonwoods near the gravel bar I am sleeping on.
Tomorrow, I’ll paddle through a combination of private and public land where Mike estimates some 300 such horses live. The herds, made up of abandoned animals, are a constant problem as they destroy grazing lands and outcompete native animals.
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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.
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|
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.