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 through a painting, Day 76

El Rio Desapareciendo by Matt Morris. Photo by: Matt Morris

Today, I walked through a painting. 

Matt Morris, a friend and architect in San Antonio, did a watercolor of the Rio Grande to help promote this project. The painting is based on a satellite image of the river valley between Rincon and Radium Springs. 

In the watercolor you can see the bright green fields of alfalfa, corn and chiles, the yellow hay fields and the rows of pecans. Between them is the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande. Beyond the fields are all the subtle hues of the Chihuahuan Desert.

I saw that today from the ground. I made the mistake of walking too far on cut and blistered feet, but the scenery and schedule made me want to keep going and find out what was coming up. Then I ran out of water. Erich came by to check on me and give me water. He then took my pack and I stumbeld the last two miles into the campground via the railroad tracks. It was a 20-mile day that should have ended at 15.  

The highlight was meeting Javier Ramirez and Geronimo Mendoza, who were weeding a field of chiles. 

Ramirez, 73, was the senior of the two and appointed himself spokesman. He has worked chile fields for more than 30 years and was quick to show us what he could do with a machete. Basically, he could kill any weed he liked and then dash the steel blade into the ground with a flourish.  

He explained the green chiles were for the local grocery stores, the yellow ones were for salsa and the red ones would be dried. Despite what the tourists in Santa Fe may say, the dried chiles are for eating, not decoration.  

He and Ramirez would keep working a 30-acre field, for an owner they only know by his first name, until the first frost killed the plants. That could be as late as December.

“The Americans don’t like the hot stuff,” Ramirez said of the chiles. “But we like the ones that give flame.”  

We are now a little more than 70 miles from the border with Mexico. As I left, Ramirez joked that I would have to watch out for the U.S. Border Protection agents.  

It is not in Morris' painting, but along all the major north/south roads are border check points. The white trucks with the green stripe are everywhere. 

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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 8:29 a.m. 32.67712 -107.15421
#2 9:43 a.m. 32.66209 -107.11618
#3 11:28 a.m. 32.64431 -107.04823
#4 2:03 p.m. 32.58695 -107.00726
#5 2:30 p.m. 32.58698 -107.00725
#6 4:20 p.m. 32.54088 -106.99265
#7 7:16 p.m. 32.50138 -106.94383
#8 8:11 p.m. 32.49315 -106.91837


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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