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 gross problem, Day 57

Feral horses living along the Rio Grande are suspected to be a large source of E. coli that is making the river unsafe to swim in and unacceptable for the pueblos' ceremonial uses. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

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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Air temperature (°C)
Conductivity (µS/cm)
Depth of Measurement (meters)
Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
E. coli colonies per 100 ml
pH level
Secchi disk transparency (meters)
Water temperature (°C)

What do these numbers mean?

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.

Air/Water Temperature
Temperature impacts everything from the amount of oxygen in the water and the metabolism of aquatic species to how easily compounds dissolve. Most species can tolerate slow seasonal changes but can go into thermal stress or shock when temperatures change by more than one or two degrees Celsius in 24 hours.
pH Level
The pH scale measures water’s acidity and runs on a logarithmic scale from 1.0 to 14.0, with 7.0 considered neutral. Anything below 7 is acidic and anything above is basic. A pH range of 6.5 to 8.2 is optimal for most organisms.
Dissolved Oxygen
Oxygen is just as vital for life below the surface as it is above. The amount needed varies according to species and stage of life, but generally 5.0 to 6.0 milligrams per liter is required for growth and activity. Levels bellow 3.0 mg/L are stressful to most fish species and levels below 2.0 mg/L for an extended period of time will cause fish kills.
Conductivity levels depend mainly on how easily the rocks and soils a stream passes through dissolve. For example, high levels of conductivity are often found with water that passes through limestone and gypsum because it will pick up the calcium, carbonate and sulfate from those rock formations. However, discharges into a water body, such as a failing sewage system, can also raise the conductivity because of the presence of chloride, phosphate and nitrate.
Water Clarity
Turbid water can come from high levels of sediment or plankton. Both will block sunlight to aquatic plants and the sediments can carry pollution such as nutrients and pesticides. Low levels of turbidity may indicate a healthy and well-functioning ecosystem. High levels can be an indicator of runoff from eroding soils or blooms of microscopic plankton due to high levels of nutrients.
E. coli
E. coli bacteria are found in the colon of warm-blooded animals. If the pathogen is found in water it’s an indicator that fecal mater from humans, pets, livestock or wildlife is also present and may pose a public health threat. For drinking water the standard is to have no E. coli. But almost all non-treated water has some E. coli in it and at low levels it does not represent a substantial health threat to those who swim or wade in it. The Environmental Protection Agency has set the water quality standard for these types of activities at 126 colony forming units per 100 mL.
Secchi disk transparency
The Secchi disk is a plain white, circular disk used to measure water transparency in bodies of water. It is lowered into the water of a lake or other water body until it can be no longer seen. This depth of disappearance, called the Secchi disk transparency, is a conventional measure of the transparency of the water.

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 3:11 p.m. 35.3441 -106.5311


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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