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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Droughts, floods and farming, Day 56

Donovan Bird cuts weeds in a ditch while his father follows behind to scrape the ditch smooth. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Life for the people of the Santo Domingo Pueblo has always been based on farming.  

“This is embedded in everything about us,” said Everett Chavez, a former three-time governor of the pueblo and the current tribal affairs liaison. “We cannot stop doing this.”  

The problem is that the style of flood irrigation the pueblo has practiced for several hundred years is increasingly difficult to do. There is less water available from the river and more competition for it. Relations with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers the water from the Rio Grande, have not been well.  The irrigation ditches are sinking below the farm fields they serve.  

On top of that, the periodic floods that sweep down from the mountains on both sides of the valley are becoming bigger and are carrying more sediment.  Fields are buried in cobbles. Roads are washed out. The mud and rocks carried by the floodwaters plug the irrigation and drainage ditches, which then burst and cause more flooding.  

But the farming will go on.  With federal and tribal sponsorship, Santo Domingo has invested approximately $400,000 to laser level 300 acres and install irrigation pipe.  The fields can now be watered much faster using less water.  This allows more fields to be irrigated at the same time. It also helps alleviate the complicated scheduling between farmers of who can irrigate and when. 

There is concern that when the pipes have to be replaced in 20 or 30 years there will not be federal funds to pay for the work. As a counter, the pueblo is committed to maintaining the ditches.  

For Everett, the use of technology to make farming easier and allow more people to do it is worth the risk and the shift from traditional irrigation methods.   

For Martin Bird the pipes sound like a good idea, but nothing will keep him from farming. Since his sons were boys he has had them out in the fields with him clearing land and cleaning ditches.  

With his son Donovan, Bird has spent the last three days clearing ditches of weeds that have grown with the recent monsoon rains.

Bird is a retired police officer from Santa Fe and can dedicate himself to maintaining his fields.  It’s a luxury Everett is envious of.  He tries to fit his farming in at night after finishing his day job.

Clearing the ditches is the only way to get water to the fields and keep the alfalfa, melons, squash, fruit trees and chilies growing through the summer.  

The 13 head of cattle fed with the alfalfa from bird’s fields and the fruits and vegetables he grows are not sold but go to meet the needs of the pueblo, be it feeding people on a feast day or just the daily meals.  

“It’s the standard pueblo tradition to share it with the extended family,” Bird said.     

The work is not easy, but Bird points out it keeps him fit and the food is used all year. 

“This is what I wanted to do all along,” he said as he went back to shoveling out the weeds.  

It’s the oldest chore on the pueblo.


Expedition Update:  We spent today with Everett Chavez learning about the Santo Domingo Pueblo.  Tomorrow we will meet with the San Felipe and the Santa Anna pueblos to work out the final details for getting access to paddle across thier lands.  Once we have that we will spend Saturday and Sunday paddeling as many miles as we can.  The monsoon rains have been great, but it looks like we will run out of water and have to start walking sometime next week.  

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 3:42 p.m. 35.51145 -106.35533


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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