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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Farming both sides of the line, Day 82

Keith Deputy stands in Texas in an irrigation ditch that delivers water from the Elephant Butte Irrigation District of New Mexico. Such contradictory situations are common along the state line because the boundary between New Mexico and Texas follows the old winding river channel of the Rio Grande. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

When Texas goes to court against New Mexico about water from the Rio Grande, the battle is about places such as Keith Deputy’s backyard.

He grew up on his grandfather’s 200 acres north of El Paso. It was a small operation that his grandfather had kept going through the Great Depression by taking a job with a utility company.

Deputy now grows pecans, alfalfa, cotton, corn and winter forage for the dairies on 2,200 acres under the umbrella of Deputy Farms. It is now one of the largest operations in the valley north of El Paso.

Deputy attributes his success to learning how to farm by growing up working the land, and a gradual expansion that coincided well with the ever growing size and expense of tractors and combines.

But besides knowing how to grow crops and make timely investments in equipment, Deputy is a master of navigating water politics. 

He has no choice.

Much of his land straddles the Texas/New Mexico state line as it zigzags along the old riverbed of the Rio Grande. Each side has its own set of rules and regulations governing the use of surface and groundwater. Neither approves of what the other is doing. 

“I figured it would be better if I stayed in the middle,” Deputy said about staying neutral with the interests of either state.

The part of Deputy’s backyard in Texas is not in a groundwater district, so Deputy can pump as much water as he can use out of his wells there. But in New Mexico, every well has to be registered and metered and comply with state-imposed limits.

The result is that all along the Texas side of the state line there are wells. Even the city of El Paso has some of its largest well fields butting up against the state line.

Groundwater follows the laws of physics, not political boundaries. As the pumps pull water from the aquifer, they are sucking it directly out from under New Mexico.

New Mexico can’t do much about it. What it can do is make sure Texas gets no more than it is entitled to from the Rio Grande. Sometimes this means that spare river water in New Mexico will be given to Deputy to prevent it from flowing into Texas.

Further, the farmers in Texas generally rely more on surface water because their aquifers are saltier than the upstream farmers in New Mexico. This is a benefit for New Mexico because every time Texas orders water out of Elephant Butte Dam, which is almost 100 miles upstream of the state line in New Mexico, some of it seeps into the ground  and becomes available for wells in New Mexico. 

Texas does not like having its water go to New Mexico and is now suing to arguing groundwater pumping in New Mexico is harming surface water delivery to Texas.

This is terrifying for Deputy.  If Texas wins, which Deputy thinks it will, one of the outcomes could be shutting down wells in New Mexico.

If that happens, farms will have to shut down.

Until that ruling, it is in farmers' interest on both sides of the state line to keep using as much water as they are legally allowed. Prices are good and if you know how to grow crops, there is money to be made. 

“If you don’t use it, who says the state is not going to come along and say ‘you aren’t using it so you don’t need it,’” Deputy said of his water rights. “We are going to have to back off some. The question is when is that decision going to be made.”

Until it is, Deputy is going to do his best to stay out of trouble with both sides and keep his farms running.  

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 2:36 p.m. 32.16032 -106.7157
#2 4:52 p.m. 32.10973 -106.66534
#3 6:03 p.m. 32.06459 -106.66341


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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