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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Moving the river, Day 208

Francisco Esqueda is helping to move 350,000 cubic meters of sand from one side of the Rio Grande to the other. Photo by: Colin McDonald

In 2010, a flood rearranged the Rio Grande in the Valley. It ripped out docks, carved deep into the banks and flooded thousands of acres for weeks.   

“It really should be called the Delta instead of the Valley,” said Rick Ramke, a volunteer at the Santa Anna National Wildlife Refuge and president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor.  

Ramke pointed out that there are no ridges to form a valley and guide the Rio Grande. Instead, it takes its time crossing the last 100 miles of sandy soil that stand between it and the Gulf of Mexico.  

The land to the north and south of the river is littered with abandoned river bends and islands of clay left behind by the Rio Grande.

That diversity, combined with two of the largest migratory flyways in North America, makes this one of the best places for birding in the world. Protecting and linking those habitats together is the goal of Ramke’s organization. 

Taking people on canoe trips was one of the tools to educate people about the river and the ecosystems it supports. But the flood took out the ramps and docks that were needed to get the general public on the water.  

That the flood was able to cause so much damage is impressive, given the size of the levees and dams. Of course, without the smaller more frequent floods, which the infrastructure can handle, the refuges now pump water out of the river to refill wetlands and lakes.     

Keeping the river in line is not easy, either.   

After we left Santa Anna and passed under the gates of Retamal Dam, we came across a crew from Mexico dredging the U.S. bank and pumping the sand and dirt back to Mexico.  

The work crew had a big fire and invited us to warm up. They also insisted we share in their lunch of roasted chicken and tortillas.    

After more than 50 river trips on the Rio Grande, Keith Bowden said their hospitality was the highlight of the trip and his number one culinary experience on the river.   

“It was so dang cold and it was hot chicken and it was good,” he said. “And I did not have to make it.” 

The crew has been working every day for two months to remove sediment from below the dam. The goal is to increase the carrying capacity of the river channel. They said they had at least another two months of work to go.   

I asked the crew leader, Francisco Esqueda, what he thought about the river, attempts to control it and if he ever went fishing or took picnics along it.   

He explained to me that he is a U.S. citizen with a family in Mexico. He is doing everything he can to earn enough money so they can move to the states and have a home.   

“Work and family is my life,” he said. “I don’t have time for picnics.”


Note: Colin's dissolved oxygen sensor appears to be malfunctioning, so those results below are likely incorrect.

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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 8:43 a.m. 26.06527 -98.16931
#2 9:20 a.m. 26.0515 -98.14937
#3 11:33 a.m. 26.07052 -98.13678
#4 1:51 p.m. 26.0459 -98.07098
#5 3:09 p.m. 26.04907 -98.03546
#6 5:34 p.m. 26.05783 -98.01016


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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