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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Protecting the river, Day 218

Brown pelicans, gulls and terns fish in the shallow water of the Gulf of Mexico near the Rio Grande. Photo by: Jessi Loerch

The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is made up of 135 separate properties scattered across four counties along the banks of the Rio Grande. 

The parcels cover everything from a beach on the Gulf of Mexico to limestone formations near Roma, Texas.  

Established piece by piece, it is one of the most confusing refuges to visit. Of the more than 100,000 acres it manages, 40,000 are open to the public. It is not easy to know which are which. None are open to the public for boating, so all I could do was paddle by most of them. 

The really confusing part comes when you look at the refuge’s mission. The goal is to establish a corridor of habitat through the valley so that animals, like the endangered ocelot, can freely roam and have a chance at surviving. 

But to do this, refuge manager Bryan Winton has a lot to balance. He is keeping some agriculture going to maintain water rights. That allows him to help wetlands that were left high and dry by the levees, which were built to open up land for farming and development. 

He also has to balance the protection of rare habitat with allowing people to visit so they are more inclined to support conservation.  

Then there is dealing with a border fence that has cut through some refuge sites and left the impression that others are too dangerous to visit. 

On top of that, SpaceX wants to build a launch pad on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, in the middle of some of the refuge’s most critical habitat.

Winton does not seem too ruffled by the tension. For the launch site to work, the area around the launch pad must stay undeveloped. Most of the land is already controlled by the refuge, but there are some inholdings that SpaceX will have to deal with.  

But sending rockets into orbit from the middle of North America’s largest migratory flyway has its risks.

“It’s going to be a lot of noise, who knows what impact that is going to have on wildlife?” he said. “You can’t interview a bird and say ‘How is your hearing?’”

The long-term concern is that, after launching rockets for a couple years, technology will change and SpaceX will move on. It will leave behind an improved road and utilities, which will make developing the beach easier.

Then the refuge will be back to its original challenge of protecting the last scraps of land before the condos come.

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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 12:01 p.m. 25.94004 -97.28671
#2 1:11 p.m. 25.94806 -97.28158


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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