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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Foresight, Day 206

Othal Brand looks out over the Rio Grande from behind a steel and Kevlar wall, which was built to slow bullets and protect the backup generators that help provide water to the city of McAllen. Below him is a boat ramp that was built to be able to launch the largest patrol boats on the river. Photo by: Colin McDonald

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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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 9:12 a.m. 26.24015 -98.56287
#2 10:41 a.m. 26.24166 -98.5527
#3 11:57 a.m. 26.22278 -98.52539
#4 12:58 p.m. 26.21326 -98.48766
#5 1:45 p.m. 26.22015 -98.48032
#6 2:09 p.m. 26.22531 -98.45828
#7 2:27 p.m. 26.22312 -98.44952
#8 3:52 p.m. 26.17731 -98.40204
#9 4:26 p.m. 26.1574 -98.37616
#10 5:52 p.m. 26.16203 -98.33286


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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