An expedition along the imperiled Rio Grande

The river’s future may include longer droughts, larger floods and shrinking snowpack.

  • Colin McDonald climbs up a snow bank to take a water sample at Stony Pass (12,800 feet), the headwaters of the Rio Grande River on the Continental Divide in the Rio Grande National Forest near Creede, Colorado.

    Erich Schlegel
  • The Rio Grande River flows beyond the remnants of the West Fork Complex Fire that burned about 110,000 acres near Creede, Colorado in June 2013.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Aerial views over Del Norte and Monte Vista, Colorado, where the first canal diverges from the Rio Grande River. The canal brings surface water to the center-pivot agricultural fields in the San Luis Valey of Colorado.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Matthew Gontram and Colin McDonald head down to the Rio Grande to kayak the Upper Box of Rio Grande Gorge near Questa, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Jason Jones maneuvers his canoe through the racecourse section of the Rio Grande River near Pilar, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Former Santo Domingo Pueblo Gov. Everett Chavez stands at the edge of an eroded floodway near the pueblo in New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Louis Burck throws hay for his cows on his ranch along the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers in Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Bighorn sheep are released above Cochiti Canyon, New Mexico. A total of 44 were released over three days.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Alfalfa farmer Corkey Herkenhoff works on his land at Indian Hill Farms in San Acacia, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Seventh graders from Sierra Middle School get a science lesson on the Highway 70 bridge over the dry Rio Grande River in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Colin McDonald paddles down the Rio Grande on his way toward Elephant Butte reservoir near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Javier Ramirez, left, and Geronimo Mendoza work on weeding a field of chile as Colin McDonald walks by on the river levee through Hatch, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel
  • Monsoon thunderstorms roll and lightning strikes near Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico.

    Erich Schlegel

 

The Rio Grande emerges from a snowfield at Stony Pass in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, and for the first 20 miles it’s as cold, clear and free as a river can be, subject only to snowpack, rain and temperature. Then the river meets the Rio Grande Reservoir, flanked by mountains in a watershed of beetle-killed spruce. Here it becomes an irrigation system regulated by treaties, state compacts and water rights dating to the mid-1800s. Until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico, 1,800 miles away, dams and levees control every drop.

Few people understand the river’s state today, let alone can imagine its future — longer droughts, larger floods, shrinking snowpack that melts sooner. So in June, I set out to follow the Rio Grande from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, alongside photographer Erich Schlegel. By foot, kayak and canoe, we are exploring the river, seeking to comprehend the recent changes. We expect to reach the sea in January. On every reach, we meet people who love the river and are working to shape its future. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande stays busy, carving mountain ranges and deserts, nourishing wildlife and human beings. In 150 years, it will fill its reservoirs with sediment. Everything on the river is temporary. 

We arrived at the end of the Upper Rio Grande in late August, after hauling our canoes across a delta of pudding-like mud at the head of the Elephant Butte Reservoir, outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The reservoir was 7 percent full. The only water leaving it runs from a pipe collecting condensation inside the dam’s inspection tunnels. The river will not flow again until it merges with the Rio Conchos, flowing out of Mexico, some 400 miles downstream. 

This story appears in High Country News with support from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

Feature Image: Colin McDonald carries his pack raft below Caballo Lake near Arrey, New Mexico. After paddling the last section of the lake, he walked the rest of the way in southern New Mexico.