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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Walking to Texas, Day 83

A painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe decorates a gate on an irrigation ditch in New Mexico. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Thank you to everyone who has donated to the Kickstarter page. We are off to a great start in raising the $25,000 we need to keep Erich on the river and shooting photos for this expedition. Please check out the page and share it with your friends. The Texas Tribune is also accepting tax-deductible donations of $1,000 or more on behalf of the expedition with this form.

Now, back to the work you are supporting. 

We spent the morning at a board meeting of the Elephant Butte Irrigation District. The district has been dealing with Texas’ concerns that groundwater pumping in New Mexico has been reducing surface water supplies in Texas since at least the mid-1940s. Today's meeting was a review of that dispute, which is alive and well.

Over the decades, the two irrigation districts have worked out various agreements for how to compensate each other. We got a history lesson in those agreements, the various ideas to get water, and the hydrologic reality that more water is being taken out of this valley than is going into it and eventually someone will have to pay. Or maybe the rain will return and this issue can be kicked down the road for another decade or so.  

The challenge now is that New Mexico did not like the latest operating agreement and sued in federal court to have it tossed out. That, along with the drought, triggered Texas to sue New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court.

This leaves Elephant Butte Irrigation District in the very awkward position of being at odds with Texas and New Mexico. Everyone we talked to did not give New Mexico good odds of winning in court. That leaves them with the very real risk that the groundwater that supports almost all of the farming in the district could be taken away by a court-imposed management plan.

It also was brought up several times that the snow pack, which provides the vast majority of the water used by the farmers, is getting smaller and has no effective way to capture the late summer monsoon rains.

It was a lot to take in.  No one seemed too excited about the possible outcomes for any of it.

Maybe that despair explains why we saw a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the gate of an irrigation ditch that was full of weeds.

We left the meeting with our heads spinning. I returned to the very basic task of heading down river.

Today I crossed into Texas. There was a park of sorts marking the state line.  It looked like it had not seen maintenance for years. The grass grew in clumps, makeshift fire pits were left next to all the cement benches, and broken beer bottles and human waste was scattered along the paved walkway.

Just above the state line, the only water came out of a pipe marked “fall out” and “danger.”  The water reached the river, pooled in a shallow mud-lined pond and then sank into the sand. 

I did not have my water quality testing equipment and the mosquitos and heat made me just want to keep on walking. 

This is not an easy place to be.  

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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 3:23 p.m. 32.06512 -106.66403
#2 3:53 p.m. 32.03658 -106.65724
#3 6:02 p.m. 31.98923 -106.62798
#4 6:43 p.m. 31.96377 -106.60435


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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