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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Safer than it was, Day 201

Paul Gaytan drops through a small rapid on the Rio Grande upstream from Rio Grande Village. Photo by: Colin McDonald

At 24 years old, Freddy Guerra was elected mayor of Roma. Now at 28, the high school history teacher is still one of the youngest mayors in the country. He wants to promote his town of 9,000 on the banks of the Rio Grande as a kayaking destination.   

The city will celebrate its 250th anniversary this year. To help with the festivities, Guerra wants to clear the land below the bridge to Ciudad Miguel Alemán, the city across the river from Roma, to create a launch site.   

The land used to be a wharf for steamships and a launch would tie in well with the city’s history — it was once the farthest inland port on the Rio Grande — and its ties to Mexico.   

Before the drug violence of 2010 stopped families from freely crossing the river, Guerra said the two towns functioned as one. Now that the area is much safer, he and others can once again visit the graves of their relatives every Sunday.  

“We never saw it as a crossing,” he said of the river.  

He explained how he wanted to be able to use the river as an asset again, much like Austin does with the Colorado River.   

He already has interest. Mario Reyna, the business and technology dean at South Texas College, wants to use the site in April for a multi-day paddle on the river to raise funds for scholarships.  

I’ll paddle with Reyna later this week. Today I launched from under the bridge with his close friend Paul Gaytan, who teaches law at the school.  

The first person we met was a young man who had stripped to his underwear and walked across the river. He yelled at us to look out for rocks that were barely submerged and then wished us luck.  

From there on it was one of the prettiest reaches of river I have seen.  

Gaytan had picked me up from Roma the night before and put me up at his house. He didn’t like the idea of me camping alone along the river. But once we were a mile outside of Roma and between the high sandstone cliffs, he changed his mind about the river being a dangerous place.  

He regretted that he had not brought along his 10-year-old son to see the river.  

We dropped through a couple small rapids and he was already planning a return trip.  

Then we hit the 17K Park. After a flood wiped out all the trees, the property owners turned their river frontage into a playground for the public. I’ll write more about that tomorrow.   

The lush grass, picnic tables and volleyball court were so inviting that Gaytan and I could not convince ourselves to paddle on to Rio Grande City.  

I was looking for the most level and softest grass while Gaytan was trying to get the best view of a  vermillion flycatcher when a Border Patrol agent came up and asked to see Gaytan’s ID. 

Being a lawyer, Gaytan was quick to point out the officer had no authority to demand to see his ID. After years of paddling reaches of the Rio Grande farther downstream, he had never been asked to show ID. Further, the mayor of Rio Grande City had informed Border Patrol that we would be on the river that day. Gaytan told the agent to call his boss and he was starting to show signs of losing the calm he had gained from a day on the river.   

The agent was not impressed. He argued that because it was the river, this was an area to patrol. The agent said that he was being polite. 

Gaytan refused for a bit longer, invited the agent to sit with us at our picnic table and then said, “You really want to see my ID don’t you? OK, here it is, if it will make you happy.” 

Apparently it did, because after checking it, the agent left.   

He never asked for my ID.  

As the agent left, Gaytan said he was actually grateful for what had happened. It made him feel safe. 

He pointed out that we are watched by drones and blimps, National Guard Troops are on the bluff and Border Patrol agents are on the river and in the cane.   

“They have us by air, land and sea,” he said. “It makes it safer for the good guys. It makes it so I can take my son kayaking.” 

Then we met with the owners of the park.  They have seen drug shipments guarded by men with machine guns. At night, their park is a crossroads of illegal traffickers and law enforcement. They said their dog never stops barking. They didn’t advise camping and suggested I use their barn on the other side of the highway. It was half a mile from the river.  

And so here I am, setting up my tent next to a bale of alfalfa. The gurgling of the river is replaced by the whir of traffic, but I am safe.   

Gaytan called to make sure I was okay after he got home.   

He was looking forward to joining me later this week to paddle more of the river.  

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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 11:02 a.m. 26.40059 -99.01633
#2 12:57 p.m. 26.38535 -98.95305
#3 2:04 p.m. 26.385 -98.93585
#4 2:58 p.m. 26.38839 -98.92404


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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