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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Faster than we could have hoped, Day 70

Colin McDonald paddles the Rio Grande towards Elephant Butte Lake. Recent rains have kept the river flowing high enough to float a canoe. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

We woke up this morning knowing we had a river with enough water to paddle. What we did not know was how long it was going to last. So we paddled with an unspoken hope that the water would last until we made it across the delta and into Elephant Butte Lake, which was some 55 miles away.  

It went ridiculously smoothly.   

We only had to walk the boats a handful of times. Springs kept popping up along the riverbank and the flow of the river gradually grew. There were actually small rapids where the river cut through the sediment of the delta it had built decades earlier when the lake was more than 70 feet higher than it is today.   

The new delta was mostly dried out with a nice channel cut through all but the last quarter mile. We cautiously walked across the mud, sinking through the first six inches of fine sediment to a base layer that gave gently under our weight, but rarely broke.  When it did, our legs would plunge down to mid-thigh and we would grab our boats for flotation and to stop from sinking farther. It was fun because it only happened a couple times. 

In less than an hour we were across.   

We arrived at the lake shore where Erich had parked the car to find Bob and Jacky Galloway and Judy and Smitty Smith cooking hotdogs on an open fire.   

They offered their extras and we ate two each, with all the fixings we could stack on top. Then we took care of the remaining deviled eggs, cantaloupe and potato chips. They assured us they were leftovers and would be tossed if we did not eat them.   

We had started the day 10 hours earlier at a camp where all we could hear was the whine of mosquitos. Tonight we go to sleep on the shores of the lake as RVs pull in to get ready for the long weekend.  We can hear generators and the booming bass coming from car speakers.  

We are wondering why we were in such a hurry to get here.

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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 8:48 a.m. 33.56913 -107.07108
#2 10:03 a.m. 33.52113 -107.10721
#3 12:00 p.m. 33.47012 -107.14929
#4 3:58 p.m. 33.30941 -107.17496
#5 5:50 p.m. 33.27185 -107.16486
#6 7:10 p.m. 33.21697 -107.17311
#7 7:57 p.m. 33.19149 -107.18674
#8 8:15 p.m. 33.1915 -107.18674


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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