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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Elephant Butte Dam, Day 71

Elephant Butte Dam on August 25 with the lake level more than 100 feet below conservation pool. While there is a pool or water below the dam there is very little flowing into it. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

When the powerplant was added to Elephant Butte Dam in 1940, it was set up to run 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. 

Last year, the plant ran for six weeks. There was not enough water behind the dam to run it any longer.

“We actually got to go two weeks longer this year,” said James Powell, the Division Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation who oversees the dam. “We got eight weeks of generation.”

Elephant Butte Dam was approved by the Secretary of the Interior in 1905 and completed in 1916. Its first priority was to provide flood control, and then irrigation water. At the time of completion, it was the largest irrigation lake in the world. Power generation would later become its third priority, followed decades later by recreation.

At the turn of the last century, El Paso was the biggest and most powerful U.S. City on the Rio Grande. It was also surrounded by the most lucrative farmlands.  The politics of the time dictated that it got the first massive federal dam project on the Rio Grande.

Water scarcity, shifts in population, and basic understanding of the hydrologic cycle would dictate today that building the world’s largest irrigation lake in the middle of one of the hottest and windiest places in New Mexico would be a bad idea. The Middle Rio Grande Water Assembly estimated in 1999 that Elephant Butte loses between 41,000 acre-feet and 228,000 acre-feet a year to evaporation. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre under a foot of water. With 41,000 acre-feet of water, more than 160,000 homes could have their daily needs met for year. 228,000 acre-feet could meet the needs of almost a million.  

For Powell, the challenge with the lack of water is that he has to shut down and then start up three nine-megawatt generators at the plant every year.  

For us, it meant that when we arrived almost three weeks after the generators stopped spinning, Powell could give us the complete tour.  We could walk right up to the inner workings of the generators and have a conversation. When the generators are spinning, these areas are so loud they can cause permanent hearing damage.

With nothing passing through the generators though, the only water going through the dam was what was seeping though the cement, and the condensation being drained out of the access tunnels. 

All of that water was then funneled into a single pipe that that stuck out of the bottom of the dam.

It was flowing at a couple gallons a minute when we were there in the morning. 

That pipe was all that was left of the Rio Grande.

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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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