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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The limits of a river, Day 59

Tomás Radcliffe, left, and Colin McDonald walk through the shallow water of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

The Rio Grande did not go dry today as we paddled through Albuquerque; it just became too shallow to float a canoe.  

It’s what locals told us would happen and probably why it was so hard to find someone to join us.   

But in Tomás Radcliffe we found a guy who did not mind a bit of walking and who had plenty to say about the cottonwood bosque that lines the river.  

In Albuquerque people obsess over the cottonwoods to the exclusion of almost all other species, Radcliffe said.  When the mayor proposed a San Antonio River Walk-style development along the Rio Grande, more than 500 people flooded a public meeting to express outrage. People will chain themselves to the cottonwoods here to stop them from being cut down.  

“I don’t think most people appreciate how nuanced the relationship is between people and species and the hydrograph and the changing climate,” Radcliffe said. “I think it would be useful if there was more than one species we focused on.” 

The challenge, which Radcliffe and others have explained, is that the cottonwoods are on their way out.  Most of them started growing after the big floods of the 1940s and the cottonwoods are now all in their mid-70s.  They rarely live past 100.  

“We have had the cottonwoods for several generations, so we think that is what it should look like,” Radcliffe said.  

But the long-term view shows that few landscapes are more dynamic than a flood-prone river valley.  Before the dams, jetty jacks, irrigation canals, drainage ditches and levies, the Rio Grande would resculpt its channel almost every year.  Grasslands and shrubs were much more common.  The water table was higher.  Cottonwoods were a major player, but they did not dominate to the exclusion of everything else.  

For Radcliffe, it makes the discussion of “saving the bosque,” much more complicated.    

What he does know is that while he spent most of his youth on baseball diamonds playing shortstop, the times with the most impact were when he and his dad went to the river.  When he had his first child, Adya, he wanted her to know the river.  She was learning how to bird by ear by the time she was 5.  Her favorite bird is the common yellowthroat.  She made a mask of one that hangs in the living room.  

For Radcliffe, who is 35, it is the yellow-breasted chat.  Every morning in the summer, he will walk to the river to find the dense thickets of willows the bird likes so he can listen to its song. 

For Radcliffe, even before he spent several hours walking and dragging a canoe across sandbars, the biggest issue is the water itself.  Nothing happens without it and there is less of it to go around. It’s a much harder discussion to have than stopping cottonwoods from being cut down, but he sees it as paramount.  

There was so little water that we ended up hauling the boats out of the river and launching into a drainage ditch with more water.  

It was there we met Colin Baugh and Max Havelka. We were all surprised to see each other.  

“There is not a lot of culture around it here,” Havelka said about people getting out on the Rio Grande.  “They assume it’s too shallow and there are dead bodies and bad people.”  

But the water in the ditch was moving, the folks walking, running and riding bikes along it were friendly and we were excited to finally start making miles again.   

One way or another, we are headed to the sea.  

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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 11:03 a.m. 35.2928 -106.58208
#2 11:41 a.m. 35.25852 -106.59528
#3 1:48 p.m. 35.18176 -106.65149
#4 4:06 p.m. 35.12333 -106.68999
#5 6:26 p.m. 35.09977 -106.69008
#6 7:12 p.m. 35.09185 -106.67973


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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