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 present and the past on the Rio Grande, Day 60

Jason Jones takes a dip in the discharge from Albuquerque's sewage treatment plant. Besides the trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, it is some of the cleanest water we have seen since the springs in the Rio Grande Gorge. Photo by: Colin McDonald

We were really excited to see the Albuquerque sewer outfall.  The water had the sweet acrid smell of treated sewage. It was dark, clear and cool compared to the warm, murky water of the Rio Grande.  We did not care.   

Albuquerque’s outfall is consistently one of the top five tributaries to the Rio Grande in New Mexico.  The water was wet and headed in our direction. 

Jason Jones, our head of logistics, actually found it refreshing and went for a swim.  I was just thrilled to have a little extra water to float our canoes.   

It was not always like this.  We spent the morning and early afternoon at the Sandia Pueblo learning about what life was like before the dams and low flows.  The elders told about wading across a river that came up to their chests and floods that stretched across the valley.  So much fine sediment was deposited that the layers of clay that formed each year could be cut into bricks, dried in the sun and then used to build homes.  

None of that happens anymore.  

“Why go down to the river to play in the sand when you used to go down and swim?” said James McCook, a member of the pueblo who served as our guide.  

With Cochiti Dam blocking the sediment, the water of the Rio Grande above Albuquerque no longer deposits sand, mud and gravel. Instead it is what geomorphologists call “hungry” and it picks up material as it cuts deeper into its riverbed.  

The river has cut down so much that it now threatens pipes that were once buried 8 feet below it.  The Sandia Pueblo had to use earthmoving equipment to dig into a sacred site so that it would have a ramp that reached the river.  The riverbanks were 6 feet high and the elders could no longer access the river. 

Not that they wanted to spend too much time in the water.  It is now so polluted they have decided to use tap water in their ceremonies.    

“It’s still sacred to us,” said Betty Chaves, a member of the Sandia Pueblo.   

But it’s not the same. When the river and the water table were high, the floodplain was wet all the time.  It was a great place to gather mushrooms.  Water seeped from the ground everywhere. Trucks would get stuck easily.  The cottonwoods were so big you could park a Volkswagen behind one and only see the side mirrors.    

Granted the groundwater was often so brackish it rendered fields impossible to cultivate.  Now with access to the markets and drains installed to lower the watertable, commercial farming is much more profitable said Lori Lauriano, who has been farming longer than almost anyone else at the pueblo. 

That was the goal of the irrigation ditches, drains and dams. But it came at the expense of the river, explained Michael “Scial” Scialdone, who works for Sandia on improving the health of its lands along the river.  

His goal is to return a bit of the river’s old function by cutting into the riverbanks and creating a new lower floodplain, even if the channels are only a few yards wide.  It’s the only place new cottonwoods are growing.     

The problem is the river keeps dropping and even the newly lowered floodplain is now too high to get water.  

Still the river wants to meander and we spent the afternoon trying to follow its deepest channel as it weaved back and forth across the straightened bed. We were happy when we found water that was a foot deep and we could paddle a full stroke without touching the bottom.   

Most of the time we dug into the sand. The only place we saw chest deep water was the at the sewer outfall.  

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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 4:08 p.m. 35.08955 -106.68085
#2 5:36 p.m. 35.03342 -106.67282
#3 6:31 p.m. 35.01668 -106.67139
#4 7:10 p.m. 34.99009 -106.68658
#5 7:34 p.m. 34.9736 -106.69051
#6 8:08 p.m. 34.94648 -106.68045


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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