A River In Peril: Documenting Damage On The Rio Grande

Colin McDonald on the Rio Grande, called Rio Bravo del Norte in Mexico. He's on a journey from the river's headwaters in Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lorne Matalon
By Lorne Matalon
October 27, 2014
Lorne Matalon
Sergio Ramirez says the net he uses once teemed with captured fish. No more, he says.

The notion that the Rio Grande is losing water is not new.

But one man wants to advance the conversation about watershed loss beyond platitudes.

He thinks prospective attempts to rescue this vital watershed are stymied by a lack of information, that the general public doesn't consider the Rio Grande's fate with the same intensity as it does other major rivers such as the Colorado River.
Colin McDonald calls it a long shot, but he wants to change that perception.
The lanky 33-year-old is on a trip funded by a fellowship from the University of Colorado. 

There are parts of the riverbed that are dry to the point some writers have dubbed it 'rio sand.'

McDonald wants to gather information that he hopes might frame a substantive discussion on the near-term future of a river that provides water to millions of people in the United States and Mexico.

That data he's collecting include taking water and soil samples and speaking with people on both sides of the river along the way.

The report concludes that a third of the Rio Grande’s water will be gone by the end of the century.

"Where this project fits is that there’s not enough information out there about the river for people to make any kind of informed decision about it," he says as he passes brown-hued limestone cliffs that reach into a cobalt sky.

That’s what McDonald is out to collect, scientific and anecdotal testimony in a watershed so many people depend on and that so many are fighting over.

The U.S. and Mexico have squabbled about the Rio Grande’s water since the creation of the binational International Boundary and Water Commission, which had its genesis in the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1848.

And in the U.S., Texas is grumbling that New Mexico is diverting water it should be sending downstream. Texas has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the issue.

McDonald says climate change and drought are hurting the Rio Grande. But he believes the choices humans make about the river also cause damage.

“By far the biggest influence on this river are the decisions we make on how much water comes out and how it’s used," he said while paddling at a furious pace near the end of day that began in the darkness of early morning and ended at sunset.

"The vast majority is taken out for agriculture, which is what the values were when those dams were built," McDonald said.

Lorne Matalon
Colin McDonald (left) and Jason Jones (right) record data from a sample of sewage effluent discharged on the river. Results are shared with EPA's National Assessment Database.

He’s referring to dams such as Elephant Butte in New Mexico built in 1916.

“Endangered Species Act wasn’t even an issue," he said referring to a controversial law
passed in 1973.

"Ecology wasn’t a word,” he added.

Since then, the population has grown exponentially and that reality has exacerbated the effects of prolonged drought.

Then there’s the Rio Grande’s status as a border.

He thinks immigration and border security are on the front burner in Washington and Mexico City. And that that preoccupation dilutes any urgency to rescue the Rio Grande.

Then he mentions the Hudson River in New York.

“You mess with the Hudson?" he asked rhetorically. "There are a lot of people that are upset. 
You mess with the Rio Grande? I mean, there’s still raw sewage being dumped into this river.”

Results of water samples he is taking are being sent to the EPA’s National Assessment Database. The river receives raw sewage from the U.S. and Mexico in certain spots.

On the Mexican side, Sergio Ramirez said he used to catch a lot of fish. But he says those days are long gone.

Ramirez is an alfalfa farmer. He says he doesn’t understand how decisions are made to hold or release water. 

"I have no idea who control the dams. I'm not sure which country holds authority on this water," he said in Spanish.

He said he only knows he can’t make a decent living without steady water.

Allen Standen is a hydrologist who has studied the Rio Grande for years. He’s joined McDonald for part of the trip.

“We’ve been floating for probably three hours now. And with the exception of seeing some egrets, we haven’t seen virtually any mammals in this river. We haven’t seen any turtles or anything," Standen said.

McDonald is also alarmed. And he’s worried that the issue’s been clouded by high-profile disputes that focus on the legal distinctions between ground and surface water. He says these distinctions don’t matter.

“If somebody sucks the aquifer dry, there won’t be water in the river. If someone sucks this river dry, there’ll be less water underground. It’s hard to model and to map. But the physical reality is that it’s the same water," he said.

That water is the prize in a series of legal disputes. He believes until those local cases are resolved, there won’t an opportunity to craft a truly regional effort to save the Rio Grande.