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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Coming back around, Day 61

A photo from the late 1800s, and one from the same place today, shows the Isleta Pueblo. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

The Rio Grande has always been a driver of change at the Isleta Pueblo.  A railroad survey from 1865 describes the river shifting its course in a single day from one side of a camp to the other. Today the elders talk about a gopher hole that switched the river from one side of the valley to the other. In a pinch, dynamite was a quick way to encourage the river to take a new path.  

With the river constantly moving, the irrigation system was impermanent. After every major flood, it would be adjusted as ditches were filled with sediment or washed away completely. 

Now with cement-lined ditches, drainage ditches large enough to hold canoe races in and cement and steel dams that are owned and operated by outsiders, adjusting is not so easy.   

Further, the Isleta Pueblo faces the opposite problem of its upstream neighbors. Here sediment is causing the stream bed to rise. That, in turn, lifts the water table, which brings salt into the fields and kills the crops.  

For Daryl Lucero it all begs the question if the new system is any better.  He is a graduate student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia studying the governance of native people.   

“We are working twice as hard for something that used to be so natural for us,” he said.  

Lucero has spent the summer shaping adobe blocks that he will use to build a home for the war chief of the pueblo as part of his thesis.  He harvested the timbers from the mountains and is using sand and clay from the pueblo.  

His ancestors used to cut the blocks from the sediment left by the river, but without big floods that’s no longer an option.   

It’s a compromise of respecting the past while living in the present. The windows and door frames will come from Home Depot. There will be no plumbing or electricity. While he is building, Lucero is teaching his helpers how to speak Tiwa, the original language of the pueblo.  

The home will be one room, 14 feet by 26 feet with 8-foot ceilings.  The windows and doors will be built so they can be changed into each other -- allowing the owner to add rooms and adjust the layout as needed by the ever-changing family that will use it.  

It is how homes in the village used to be, before HUD housing came along with rules about what could be done until the loan was paid. 

The photo that leads this blog was taken in the late 1800s.  With the permission of the pueblo, Erich was able to climb the same church it was taken from.  A hundred years ago, floods and demand for firewood prevented the cottonwoods from getting too big. But little else has changed.   

Adobe walls work well in the desert and these have stood for more than 100 years.  

Upstream, an even older method is returning.  

After spending the morning at the Isleta Pueblo, I went to visit the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.   

The refuge is part of a new breed of wildlife refuges. Right now it is a 500 acre old dairy in the middle of an industrial area of Albuquerque. It is down the street from the largest homeless shelter in the state and the sewer treatment plant.  

And that’s the wonder of the place, explained Jennifer Owen-White, the refuge manager and its only employee. With more than 100 dedicated volunteers, senior water rights and well permits, the land is going to become a mosaic of different habitats. A primary goal will be to provide a place for endangered species but at the same time educate the public about the land they live on.   

Stormwater will be captured and run through various basins so it can be filtered and slowed before being dumped into the Rio Grande. 

Plans are being made to connect the refuge to the river via foot paths. Land was purchased so a light rail stop could be added, along with a bus stop and access to the city’s hiking and biking paths.  

The land will begin to look and function like it did before the cement plants, junkyards and highway came to dominate the area. It will also be easy to get to.   

“Our job is to engage a whole new audience,” Owen-White said. 

Her goal is to show them what this land once was and what it can do. 

A lot that can be learned from the old ways.

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 8:46 a.m. 34.9397 -106.68196
#2 9:26 a.m. 34.9054 -106.68452


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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