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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Digging for water, Day 79

Gavin Lucero, 9, tells Colin McDonald what the dissolved oxygen readings are from a water sample taken from a pit he helped his older brother and friends dig in the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

I spent the morning hiking with MC Flashcard, aka Tim Staley. He teaches English at Oñate High School in Las Cruces.

Staley also runs a small poetry press called Grandma Moses Press and likes to organize poetry marathons and rap competitions for his students. He and his wife are also in a band called Barely Legal.

He grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and came west to pursue poetry. He won a kayak in a raffle sponsored by Budweiser and is now a self-described river rat who likes to float and hike at night to escape the desert heat.

But living in a town that has a flowing river only a few months a year makes getting out to paddle a bit difficult. Sometimes, he and his friends will just float under a bridge. There are not too many places to paddle to and just floating on the river can be enough.  

Our walk took us by a section of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which was created in May of this year.  It was easy to see why living in a small college town with almost half a million acres of open desert and mountains to explore would be appealing to a poet.

He wanted to walk with me to get more information about paddling other sections of the Rio Grande and balancing domestic life with outdoor adventures.

I was thrilled to have someone to talk to as we trudged through the soft sand. I tried to keep my feet dry while jumping over the little streams that remain of the Rio Grande.

I told him all I could about paddling the other sections of the river. It’s great when there is water. Don’t be intimidated by the rapids of the Rio Grande Gorge. The laws are not clear on whether the wildlife refuges can bar access to the public.

I’m not much help for the domestic side, exploring rivers takes time and I understand that is difficult to spare if you have a career and a family.

But there must be something to taking kids to the river.

Staley had to be back in town by noon. I finished the walk at the park where I had met the students of Melly Locke’s class the day before on my own.

There, under the Highway 70 bridge, several of the students were back with their parents to see the river. This time they wanted to find the water. Armed with shovels, they started to dig down to the water table.

Three feet into the sand they found water.

It was just another summer Saturday afternoon hanging out with friends down by the river. Here is the video all about it.

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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 9:17 a.m. 32.48418 -106.92744
#2 10:12 a.m. 32.46684 -106.90602
#3 12:01 p.m. 32.41725 -106.86703
#4 3:19 p.m. 32.34295 -106.83754
#5 3:34 p.m. 32.33294 -106.83258
#6 4:43 p.m. 32.31013 -106.82672


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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