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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To know a river, Day 62

Colin McDonald tows his canoe down the Rio Grande just upstream of Belen, New Mexico. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

All along this trip we have been asking people about what the river is like around the bend or a couple miles downstream.  Very few people actually know.  Even those who spend their professional careers dedicated to the study or management of the river often have no idea what it is like to paddle the river.  

Isleta War Chief Paul Jiron has never paddled in his life. The closest he has come is floating in inner tubes that he took from his father’s farm when he was a teenager.  

But he knows every foot of the Rio Grande as it flows across his pueblo’s land. He knew how long it would take us to paddle the reach he was going to travel and which bank to paddle along to find the deepest water.   

He walked the river as a boy and keeps an eye on it now.  That is one of his main jobs as the war chief.  When outsiders jumped the fence line and tried to grow marijuana on Isleta land, it was Jiron who made sure they stopped.    

When he grew up, the riverbanks were not covered with willows and cottonwoods.  There were not fires every summer.   

As the war chief, Jiron can’t leave the pueblo. He got off the river less than a mile before the southern boundary.   

From there on I was on my own.  Jiron told me to watch out for the pot farmers and I tried to make as many miles as I could.  By mid-afternoon the river had become so braided and shallow that I gave up looking for water deep enough to paddle in.  I took off my shoes and started to walk.  I towed the canoe behind as it lurched over the sand bars.  

Most of the time I had no idea where I was, what was around the corner or when I would arrive at the take out.

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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 9:24 a.m. 34.90525 -106.6864
#2 10:17 a.m. 34.87408 -106.71965
#3 10:51 a.m. 34.85706 -106.72057
#4 12:24 p.m. 34.81344 -106.71162
#5 12:49 p.m. 34.80379 -106.71835
#6 2:31 p.m. 34.78122 -106.72873
#7 4:51 p.m. 34.72138 -106.74809
#8 6:45 p.m. 34.66736 -106.74554
#9 7:31 p.m. 34.65316 -106.73657


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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