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.Read more
Othal Brand Jr. has a knack for finding solutions at just the right time.
He is also the board president and general manager of the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3, which means he is his own boss and can implement his ideas quickly.
To protect the district’s pumps from floodwaters, he put them and gas-powered backup generators on top of a 20-foot steel tower. His biggest customer is the city of McAllen and he can’t afford to have his pumps fail.
Two years later, in 2010, the river rose to record heights. His foresight paid off and the city never lost water service.
That flood was followed by the upswing of violence in Mexico. Headless bodies washed up against the trash gates that protect the intake pipes. Warning shots were fired at his workers.
Brand’s response was to build one of the largest boat ramps on the Rio Grande. Every state and federal agency with a boat on a trailer can now launch right next to his pumps, no matter how low the river. He also installed ¼-inch thick steel plates lined with ½-inch thick pads of Kevlar to slow down any bullets that might be fired at the precious generators.
To help stay popular with local law enforcement, he spent $1,500 a month in the summer to have ice delivered to the ramp. Thanks to the ice, the agents going out on patrol could always have a cold drink.
“That is a small investment for 24-hour armed security,” he said.
Brand said he has not had a problem with security since.
Like the valley he has come from, Brand adapts and moves on.
In 2012, he survived a politically motivated audit that showed the district had “significant weaknesses in the management of its finances and operations,” but it found no evidence of funds being misappropriated.
Brand’s family once owned the largest vegetable-growing empire in Texas and was the largest local employer. That business is now gone. Brand makes his living by leasing cellphone companies space on the towers he owns across the Rio Grande Valley.
He is also selling some of his Rio Grande water rights. Water that was once used to grow vegetables upstream will be diverted to near Laredo, where it is needed to frack wells in the Eagle Ford shale.
“This is the last hole of cheap water left,” Brand said.
He would love to go back into farming. He misses the life and the ever-changing challenges. But it is a hard life with high financial risks. He is not going back.
Others will continue to farm the valley, but farming will never be king again.
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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.
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.
|Time of Check-In (CST)
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.