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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Answers on a rest day, Day 77

Erich Schlegel works on editing photos and enjoys a campfire, while doing everything he can to avoid being bitten by mosquitos. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

Since June 20, I’ve traveled about 650 miles by kayak, canoe and foot following the Rio Grande. In that time, I’ve overlooked some basic questions about what Erich and I are actually doing.  

The following questions were sent in by readers and I'm using this rest day to answer them.  

If there is anything else you would like to know about what and how we are doing this expedition, please email me your questions at mcd.colin@gmail.com

1. In hindsight, did you realize what you were committing to when you took on this particular project? The costs being...

            a. Financial - I know there were fundraising efforts. Are your needs met?

A: When I was planning for this project, I made up a budget for the cost of the gear, food, travel expenses and three month’s of Erich’s time. Through online fundraisers, donations and my own savings I was able to cover those costs.

Next week, we will launch a fundraising campaign to raise $25,000 to cover Erich’s costs so he can stay on until we reach the Gulf of Mexico.

            b. Physical - The daily demands of the Expedition are not for the weak in body. What does it take to be fit enough to begin this type of adventure and make it to the end?

A: The most physically demanding aspect of this expedition is the day-to-day grind to keep moving and be alert for stories at the same time. It is a marathon. To get ready, I trained for the Colorado Marathon. It definitely helped, as did living at 6,500 feet outside of Boulder, Colorado. I was there as a Ted Scripps Fellow at the University of Colorado for the academic year leading up to this expedition, studying water policy, law and river ecology.

            c. Emotional - What emotional challenges do you face and how do deal with them?

A: I miss Jenna, my fiancée, and having the daily comforts of being in a place I can call home. I deal with this by calling Jenna when I have cellphone coverage and writing her postcards when I don’t. I now see my tent and backpack as a kind of home, and spend a lot of time staring at the stars.   

2. Which of the above has been the most challenging thus far?

A: Being away from Jenna. I did not anticipate that would be so hard.

3. How do you encourage yourself through tough moments, i.e., hunger, fatigue, missing loved ones, stumbling blocks related to the research you're doing?

A: We are passing through beautiful country and meeting wonderful people. I love to paddle and hike, so the expedition provides its own encouragement. The greatest challenge is to be aware enough of my own limitations to decide when to take a break.

The only stumbling block for the research is when I have not done enough. When I don't, I don't have people to talk to and the expedition becomes a slog. The solution is to read more and interview more people. That always livens things up.

4. What types of things do you eat? Do you carry your water?

A: We mostly buy food that travels well and can be eaten with no preparation or boiled quickly in a pot over a camp stove. It’s a lot of apples, peanut butter, cans of soup, noodles and crackers. I also have a grocery sack filled with various types of energy and granola bars.

And yes, we carry water.  For a day of walking or paddling in 90-degree heat, it is nice to have at least a gallon. 

5. How difficult is it to prepare sustenance for such a long-term trip and how do you resupply?

A: Because Erich is driving, this expedition is more like a really slow road trip for him and a luxurious paddle/hike for me. We can cram all of our gear and packaged food into the back seat of "El Burrito," Erich’s Honda Civic, and that is what we live off. I rarely have to carry more than a day or two of supplies with me.    

6. What about personal hygiene and toilets?

A: I brush my teeth with an electric toothbrush twice a day. I find a way to bathe at least once every other day, either in a shower at a hotel, campground, clean section of the river or by dumping water out of a gallon jug as I hold it above my head.

We use public toilets, sometimes stay in hotels or follow leave no trace practices and dig a six-inch deep hole.

7. When you consider the seriousness of the water issues and how challenging it is for some people to work together to solve the problems, what goes through your mind? 

A: I think this a great story. Then, I try to understand the perspective of everyone I interview. What I find is that even the people who seem at polar ends of the debate about what should be done with the Rio Grande usually have much more in common with each other than not. 

8. Where did your desire to write about environmental issues originate?

A: When I was in high school, in 2000, journalist Byron Acohido gave a talk to a class I was in about his work on Boeing 737 explosions and crashes, which won him a Pulitzer. I left class that day knowing I wanted to be a reporter like him. 

The environmental part came because I liked being outside, most journalists don’t and there are a lot of stories about what is happening to the natural systems we depend on that I think should be told. 

9. Have you ever thought about writing a book?

A: Yes, but that seems like a lot of work.  

10. Are there any plans to compile the stories and photographs of the Expedition into a book for sale?

A: There is talk, but no plans.  The goal for now is to arrive safely at the Gulf of Mexico in January and tell the story the best we can as we go.  We have some 1,270 more miles to cover and I still have a lot of questions about this river. 

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.


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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