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
Farm fields across the San Felipe Pueblo are lying fallow. There is less water to work them and fewer people to do so.
The orchards are gone, along with the pueblo’s diversion ditch to take water from the Rio Grande. Now water comes from the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and there is not enough to reach some of the fields. Small gardens now occupy the center of fields that were once worked from fence line to fence line.
For Ricardo Ortiz, who grew up farming with his grandparents on the pueblo, it’s hard to watch.
In the 1970s he remembers that all his grandparents did was farm. They did not work other jobs. They traded what they grew for what they needed.
He remembers his grandmother asking him why he would want to freeze something to preserve it when canning and drying worked just as well and didn’t require electricity.
“Now it has changed drastically,” he said. “Now it’s all about money. Now we spend all our time talking about money.”
He also pointed out that when he was growing up, walking was the main mode of transportation. Going to Albuquerque to work, shop or eat was rare. So were cars and diabetes.
And then there are the horses.
“They are not wild; they are horses that have been abandoned,” he said.
They never had that problem back then, either. But now that everyone drives and feed is expensive, the horses just roam. We saw them everywhere: in the fields, along the road and milling around by the river.
And that brings in the next problem for the Santa Anna Pueblo, just downstream.
It’s also dealing with adapting to low flows, explained Bart Vanden Plas, a water quality scientist for the pueblo. For example, ceremonies for the feast day in late July involve going to the river, but often there is not enough water to bother making the trip.
Along with low water, there is often horse poop in the water and the E. coli count is high enough to almost guarantee people will get sick if they swim.
We took a walk with Plas along the edge of the river and saw horse droppings on top of mats of detritus that had floated in with the last high water.
“That’s telling you there has got to be a lot of it,” he said. “You know that it is not making it through the dam.”
Because the water is central to ceremonies, the pueblos have set standards much lower than that of New Mexico and of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Santa Ana, the standard is 50 colonies per 100 ml. The EPA standard for contact recreation is 126. Plas has recorded levels as high as 12,000.
Not only are the counts much higher than they used to be, the high numbers are sticking around for longer through the warm season, he said. Plas said he has seen eddies along the river with poop circulating in them.
Both pueblos gave us permission to paddle through their lands. And we will do so as quickly as we can, grateful the monsoon rains have provided enough water to float our canoes and with as little splashing as possible.
Water quality note: We were not able to get to the river on August 15. These measurements are from August 16 and were taken upstream of the Santa Ana and San Felipe Pueblos.
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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.
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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.