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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Bring the fish back, Day 80

Grandpa, a flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, looks out from its home under some rocks in a 500-gallon fish tank in the lobby of the Southwest Environmental Center. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

For Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces, the idea you would need a water right to plant a tree along the Rio Grande is a bit ridiculous. 

There were trees using water well before any human arrived in the valley, he argues, and therefore some water should be held for them and the river.

"The river lost the first time,” he said, referring to when all the Rio Grande's water was allocated to farming and cities in the early 20th century. “We need to make sure it does not get screwed the second time … we don’t want to pretend that growing cottonwoods is agriculture.”  

The second time he is referring to is the period we are now in where cities and developers are transferring water from irrigation use to home and business use.

When those transfers happen, Bixby would like to see some of the water set aside for the river. He even goes so far as to dream about a day when water would be allowed to flow past El Paso and Juarez so the river would reconnect with the lower reaches of the Rio Grande and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

It's not that the Rio Grande didn't go dry before. The river did that well before any settlement occurred. Bixby is well aware of that and a bit sick of that argument. 

Yes, the river went dry. But that was before it was completely channelized and the land alongside it drained. Before those developments, when the river went dry, there were oxbow lakes and ponds that would have held water and provided habitat. 

The river created these features as it swept back and forth across the valley and left a massive wetland in its wake. It was a huge wet sponge, and it was the reason El Camino Real, the Spanish road from Mexico City to Santa Fe, did not pass along the river but along the edge of the valley where the land was much drier.

Without those wetland features, anything that depends on staying wet has to be in the river and hope for a very wet year.  

“We only have one hand to play now, and that is to keep water in the main system,” Bixby said.

And with a river channel designed to move water quickly, that is very difficult to do.

“Since 1916, we have had a manmade drought every winter,” Bixby said. “The river is in bad shape not because of the drought, the river is in bad shape because the way we treat it.”

Bixby’s response is to start recreating ponds and wetlands along the river.  One of them is now the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, which we will visit tomorrow.

Another, La Mancha Wetland, is stuck in a bureaucratic logjam.  It was built around a pond donated to the center by a developer building a subdivision who made it while excavating fill near the river. 

Only after the donation was Bixby told that the pond was illegal. It needed to be filled in because it was exposing groundwater and thus accelerating groundwater evaporation.  Bixby countered that the City of Las Cruces was donating surface water rights from a new diversion ditch that would make up for the evaporation losses to the ground water.

Both the diversion from the river and change of use would require approval from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District and the New Mexico State Engineer.  Bixby said he has been waiting three years on the approval from the state and does not want to start with the irrigation district until he gets the first permit.

So the illegal pond sits half full with groundwater and the diversion gate sits with no channel to the river.

The fish of the Rio Grande on this reach are as gone as the river. 

Back at his office, Bixby has a fish tank to remind him of the 22 species the river once supported. A flathead catfish, Pylodictis olivaris, named "Grandpa," two longnose gar, Lepisosteus osseus, named "Lady Gar Gar" and "Garfunkel," live in a 500-gallon tank.

The gar will only eat live fish and are fed a weekly diet of goldfish, Carassius auratus, from the local pet store. It is quite the show at feeding time. You can see Erich’s video here.  The little orange exotic fish don’t stand a chance against the natives.

The big fish have plenty of water.  

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

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 6:24 p.m. 32.28724 -106.76102


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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