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
The sabal palm forests and citrus orchards of the Rio Grande Valley feel like home for Max Pons. He has lived and worked among them for most of his life.
“I’m a fifth generation South Texan,” he said. “My great-great-grandfather was a sea captain and a river captain. I’m guessing he was the kind of guy who cut down a lot of things. I’m trying to put some back up.”
Of the estimated 40,000 acres of sabal palm forest that once stretched along the Rio Grande, less than 300 acres exist today. Of that, one of the largest stands is on the 1,034-acre Southmost Preserve, which is owned by the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy and managed by Pons.
TNC is a supporter of this project and I am writing this post from my tent inside the packing warehouse of the old orchard.
Pons and his seven neighbors drew national attention when their homes were left on the “outside” of the border wall. The tracks of mud from people climbing over the fence that splits the preserve can be seen on the rusted steel posts that create the 20-foot-high barrier.
The sabal palm forests were cleared to make room for farm fields on the rich soil of the Rio Grande delta. Now the farm fields that are on the preserve help protect the last remaining stand as Pons works to show how conservation of habitat and agriculture can work together.
The water of the Rio Grande is over allocated for use by cities and farms, meaning that there is no water to spare. Even if there was water available, under Texas law, water can’t be dedicated for wildlife. So the only way for Pons to get the water he needs to maintain the moist soils the palms enjoy is to irrigate the surrounding fields. The irrigation runoff is then channeled into drainage ditches and allowed to flow into the wetlands that border the forests.
To take it one more step, Pons is planning to cut down large swaths of the citrus orchards on the preserve. Some palms have naturally planted themselves in the orchard. Until last year, the orchards were in commercial production of organic grapefruits and oranges.
Pons plans to cut them down and allow native plants to repopulate the land.
As the sun set, he walked the rows of trees that he would like to cut and looked for a grapefruit with tight skin and a flat bottom and top.
He wanted one that was what he called “elbow good."
He found what he was looking for and cut a slice for Jessi Loerch, the editor of this project who has come down from Seattle to paddle the last 50 miles, and me.
The bright meat of the fruit burst as soon as we bit in. The sweet juice ran down the length of my forearms. They were elbow good.
Pons smiled and reassured us he is going to leave a couple of rows of both the grapefruits and oranges. He donates the fruit to the zoo and local bird sanctuaries to be used as feed.
And it would just not be the Valley or his home without the citrus trees.
Expedition update: Along with Jessi, my brother, Ross McDonald, and close family friends Jonathan Hayes and George Hayes have joined the expedition to paddle the last 50 miles to the Gulf.
We are no longer getting accurate readings from the dissolved oxygen meter.
To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.
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.
|Check-In||Time of Check-In (CST)||Latitude||Longitude|
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.