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An expedition along the imperiled Rio Grande

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


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.