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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Footprints, Day 207

Keith Bowden, author of “The Tecate Journals,” paddles the Rio Grande in the fog near Mission, Texas. Photo by: Colin McDonald

There is a fellowship among those who paddle frequently on the Rio Grande where it is the border between Mexico and the United States.  

Few do it, and we seem to have an almost instant friendship and trust based on nothing more than a fondness for a particular reach of river. 

I spent the last four days with Paul Gaytan and his family, who took me in like I was a visiting uncle. All they knew about me was from Facebook and this website. All I knew about them was from Facebook and Gaytan’s message that he liked to paddle the river near Mission with his son.  

Tonight, I’m camping on the banks of the Rio Grande with Keith Bowden. Before we met this morning, he did not know much more about me than that I had big feet and sometimes traveled with a person with small feet.  

If anyone has paddled more miles on the Rio Grande than I have this year, it’s probably Bowden. When Jessica Lutz and I left Langtry headed for the Pecos River, Bowden was just a few days ahead of us in a raft. By the time I returned to the river from Thanksgiving, Bowden was off for another float trip down the same reach.  

He saw the places where we had struggled with mud and thus knew our footprints. He was surprised when he saw we had continued on past the normal take out. He paddled through the same 60 hours of rain that forced us to hold up at Hot Springs. He too had to build a walkway of sticks and reeds across the muck at the mouth of the Pecos.

I trusted him completely after our first conversation.   

Bowden is the author of “The Tecate Journals, Seventy Days on the Rio Grande.” The book chronicles his journey by bike, raft and canoe down the river during the winter of 2004-2005. It has been an inspiration and guidebook for me.   

For the last two months, I have tried to reach him. But he was always out on the river.   

Just as I was preparing to leave Mission, he called.   

He was about to launch on another trip down the Rio Grande. I asked him if he would consider paddling the valley instead of doing another run in the canyons.  

Based on where I had left my footprints and a glance through this website, Bowden agreed to come along as a translator and spend a week on the river with a person he had never met. 

His only request: that he could have his fires and drink his Tecate.

I don't like either, but it was a small compromise to get to paddle with someone like Bowden. 

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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 8:30 a.m. 26.16152 -98.33298
#2 10:09 a.m. 26.13493 -98.33261
#3 11:18 a.m. 26.10216 -98.30222
#4 12:09 p.m. 26.11715 -98.27942
#5 3:34 p.m. 26.0773 -98.22525
#6 4:38 p.m. 26.06452 -98.18716


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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