Disappearing Rio Grande

New? Start here.

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.

Read more

The new flood plain, Day 67

Aaron Mize inspects grass seed in an artificial wetland that was tilled and flooded this year. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

It is a new era at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The 57,000-acre refuge extends across the Rio Grande Valley in central New Mexico. It was established in 1939 to give migratory birds a stopover and help keep duck hunting viable.   

It was a time when floods were common, water was practically unlimited and the Endangered Species Act was three decades away.  

Now the floods are gone, the refuge staff is working to track every drop of water that flows in and out and the needs of three endangered species influence every land use decision.   

Basically, the refuge has to maintain flood plains along a river that rarely floods and without the water to do it. 

The answer is to mimic the floods by tilling and scraping the land with tractors until the soil is bare like it would be after a massive flood. Then, judiciously using their water rights, the refuge has to put 6 inches to a foot of water on the land and then let that slowly dissipate.   

The plants and then the animals respond to the artificial flood like they would to a natural one. New grasses start growing immediately, followed in the next two years by perennials and eventually trees like willows and cottonwoods.  

“We just had to set the table,” explained refuge manager Aaron Mize.  

The result is that in an area where the true functioning floodplain of the Rio Grande has been reduced to islands and sandbars, the refuge has more than 6,000 acres of flood plain and the endangered species look like they are backing away from the brink of extinction.  

“It’s just thinking like a river,” said John Vradenburg, the supervisor biologist for the refuge. 

It’s also thinking like a farmer. Vradenburg said he had to change his vocabulary and look at the ecosystems he was creating as crops with inputs, outputs and end products. Instead of alfalfa for dairy cows that will produce milk for people, he is growing seeds for birds that people will come to watch and, in other places, people will hunt those same birds.

It has made him more understandable to his neighbors. 

And as farmers of the valley started to think differently about their water use, so did the refuge. It now has the same type of gates and meters as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District. It is working to reroute its ditches so they all converge at one point. The water can then be easily measured and allocated. 

It again makes relationships with the neighbors much easier. 

With water becoming tight, there is less room for the inefficiencies that used to dominate the system. Everyone is cutting back, and now the refuge can show how it is, too.  

The refuge is also moving on to other methods.  

An area along the train tracks that runs through the refuge is being replanted after a train derailment of spilled Volkswagen Jettas, and the subsequent recovery work, destroyed the native vegetation. Instead of using water, the replanting crew is experimenting with a wet glob called Driwater.   

It is trying out heirloom varieties of corn that will be used to feed the sandhill cranes in the winter. The thought is that the Spanish and Pueblos spent more than 500 years cultivating corn that survived the challenges of the Rio Grande, so the refuge may as well take advantage of the work.   

With just two waterings, and no fertilizers or pesticides, corn on the refuge has already reached close to 10 feet high.  

“We can play Pollyanna all we want, but the river is not coming back,” Vradenburg said.  

But, he added, that does not mean there is not a lot that can be done with the river and the water that still exists.  

The Federal protected endangered species of Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge: 

New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus) 

Rio Grande silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus) 

Southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) 

Expedition Update: With the idea that it is better to get as much information as possible before going into a place, Erich and Colin took an extra day to learn about the Rio Grande between Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the reservoir of Elephant Butte. The basic concern is that the flows of the river, combined with the shifting delta at its mouth, can create an area that is like quicksand, but made of mud.   

Erich flew over the area in an ultralight Monday morning while Colin met with every state and federal agency involved with that stretch of river to ask about its status and any road or trail in the remote area.

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 6:41 p.m. 34.08212 -106.87665
#2 8:28 p.m. 34.08213 -106.87663


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.


Jessica Lutz
Mike Kane
Project Editor
Barbara Hosler
Copy Editor
News Apps Team Lead | @rdmurphy
Google Journalism Fellow | @jessihamel
Web Designer | @been_hussln
Editor | @ATXjj