A River Divided
Paddling and walking the length of the Rio Grande, Colin McDonald witnesses a river that is plugged, divided, sold–and biding its time.
PHOTOS BY ERICH SCHLEGEL
Starting on the summer solstice last year, I spent seven months following the Rio Grande 1,900 miles by paddle and foot, from its source in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to meet the people who live, play and depend on this disappearing river.
I walked one-third of the river because there was no water to float. As I traveled with friends and locals I met along the way, I gave up on the notion the Rio Grande would ever be anything but a regulated system of dams and levies. Invasive cane and salt cedar choke the riverbed. Officials in the U.S. and Mexico seemed to have no appetite for the policy changes that would allow the Rio Grande to function as a river.
Then in early November, just past the half way mark, it started to rain.
I was entering the 196-mile-long Wild and Scenic reach, where the river cuts its iconic Big Bend along the border between West Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. After three days of cold drizzle the desert was thick with the smell of creosote bushes rushing to bloom. The canyon walls looked to me like towers of melted candles and collapsing cathedrals. The river rose with the rain, whisking me downstream at 6 miles per hour.
I picked a high open campsite on the Mexican shore, and was huddled over a pot of instant noodles when the blocks sprang free from the cliff face. Chunks of limestone the size of couches and microwaves tumbled off their 500-foot-high perches to pummel the surface of the Rio Grande.
Standing on the opposite bank I could feel the rumble as the force of the river shoved and rolled the new additions downstream.
The Rio Grande was finally living up to its name.
The Rio Grande forms at Stony Pass in southwest Colorado, 12,500 feet above sea level. When I arrived the scattered snowfields dripped like soggy sponges in the June sunshine. I chose the largest stream emerging from the biggest snow patch, and began to follow it downhill by foot, through black scree fields, meadows packed with wildflowers and spruce forests that blocked out the sun.
For its first 21 miles, the river is free flowing, and hosts some of the best alpine trout fishing the United States. Then it disappears into the Rio Grande Reservoir and begins its life of servitude to agriculture and cities across the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Laws written in the 19th Century govern the Rio Grande, as they do the Colorado and other rivers throughout the west. Dams and levies built in the 20th Century controlled the floods and allowed farms to bloom in the desert. The states claimed every acre-foot of water, and then some.
I was lucky when I hit the Rio Grande Reservoir. The irrigation season was in full swing, so the river below the dam was full of water destined for downstream farms. I bobbed through the Class III wave train of the first canyon, known locally as The Box. For miles, I floated through the blackened remains left by West Fork Complex fires, which consumed 109,000 acres of beetle- killed spruce forest in June and July of 2013.
The insect population used to be held in check by long cold winters and wet years when the trees could flush the insects out with sap. Now both are rare. Of the 560,000 acres of spruce forest in the Rio Grande National Forest, 500,000 are infested with beetles. The few stands of living trees I saw near Stony Pass were the last holdouts.
The beetles are the vanguard of a shifting climate. The water supply is next. By the end of this century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates the upper Rio Grande watershed will collect 30 percent less water as annual snowpacks shrink and evaporation rates increase.
On any given day during the irrigation season, Colorado diverts 95 percent or more of the Rio Grande to irrigate the farms and pastures of the San Luis Valley. I floated into the valley on a flow of 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). I left 60 miles later on 400 cfs. It’s the opposite of the river’s natural cycle, and hell on the fish and farmers downstream.
It was a great system for Colorado farmers when there was plenty of water. But for the last 20 years, the snowpack has supplied less water than agriculture has used. Farmers compensated by pumping groundwater. The aquifer went into free fall. Wells went dry and the river’s flow decreased even more.
The surface water right holders sued the groundwater pumpers. Environmental groups threatened to sue everyone. The state engineer spoke of shutting down wells. I paddled through the middle of it all, looking for the fight.
Instead I found Heather Dutton, a fifth-generation native of the valley. She drives a truck better suited to dirt roads than paved and is the daughter of one of the most productive and respected potato farmers in the valley. The skyline of the San Juan Mountains, the birthplace of the Rio Grande, is engraved on her wedding band.
As the executive director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Restoration Project she does not pick sides. Her goal is restoring the river for the benefit of all.
“We have to work with everyone because water is so scarce,” she said. “If someone wanted to focus just on environmental issues here they would be working in a vacuum.”
In a world where water diversions are the lifeblood of every farm and ranch, she is in the business of taking out dams, restoring river bends and planting trees that use water and make money for no one.
Her current list of projects includes replacing six dams that divert water for irrigation from the main stem of the Rio Grande. The new dams will have fish ladders and passages for boats. She also partners with landowners, 55 so far, on bank and habitat restoration projects.
“On paper it looks like we just bought farmers these beautiful dams,” Dutton said of her work. “But what we bought was their buy in and community cooperation.”
Farmers now tell Dutton when they see endangered species on their land. The bank restoration will provide shade, erosion control and water storage for the river. Forced by the lawsuits and united to protect the future of agriculture the farmers are working collectively to reduce pumping and restore the aquifer.
Downstream, it’s not so easy.
Below the San Luis valley, the river crosses into New Mexico and drops into the Rio Grande Rift, where the continent is slowly ripping itself apart. The river slices through the cone of an ancient volcano and into the Upper Box, renowned for its Class V whitewater. I ran it with locals Matthew Gontram, Neil Cheesewright and Garret Schooley. They showed me the lines, and I followed.
In 1968, Congress included this reach in the first designation of Wild and Scenic Rivers. President Obama declared it a national monument in 2013. The distinction does nothing to ensure the river will actually have water. The river was so low in mid July that many challenging rapids were literally walks in the park. We dragged our boats over the dry boulders.
The gorge opens into a fertile valley that has supported farms since before the Spanish arrived in 1540. There I meet Phoebe Suina of the Cochiti Pueblo. She holds an engineering degree from Dartmouth College, and when she speaks of the river, her soft voice becomes resolute.
“We take this river for granted. It is not going to keep flowing,” she says with an authority rooted in her knowledge of computer models and the collective wisdom of her ancestors. Suina tells me it’s not the shifting rain patterns and shrinking snow packs that are destroying the river. It is the very premise it can be owned and controlled.
That’s where the problems start and Suina’s work begins.
Cochiti Dam was opened in 1973 to protect Albuquerque from floods. It submerged half of the Cochiti’s farmland and turned a third of what remained into un-useable marsh. The Cochiti Pueblo had consented to the dam only after the Army Corps agreed not to alter a sacred rock formation near the river.
“They actually went in and flagged it,” Suina said of the formation. “And what was the first place they blew up?”
At Dartmouth, Suina learned the Corps had made a promise it could not keep. Cochiti dam is 5 miles long, 251 feet high and designed to hold back the floods of the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande. It has to be anchored to bedrock. No amount of flagging could change that.
Suina takes solace in the knowledge that the dam is not permanent. The Rio Grande has carved through mountain ranges. An earthen dam, like the government that built it, won’t stand in its way for long.
“Someday that dam is not going to be there,” she said. “I may not see it. My kids may not see it; my grandkids may not see it. But someday that dam is not going to be there.”
THE FORGOTTEN RIVER
The governor of Cochiti Pueblo gave me permission to paddle on through the pueblo’s land, and helped secure permission from the neighboring pueblos. The war chiefs of the sovereign nations could have had me arrested for trespassing. Outsiders are not trusted with the river.
By the time I reached the diversion for the city of Albuquerque the river no longer had enough water to float a canoe. I hauled my boat into the network of irrigation and drainage ditches–the only place to float a boat.
Then it was back to river to catch a hitch from the pulses of the Albuquerque sewer treatment plant. When those petered out it was a waiting game to catch the brief rises from passing thunderstorms. Straightened and lined with earthen levies, the Rio Grande was more like a canal than a river, even as it cut through the Sevilleta and Bosque del
Apache national wildlife refuges.
Finally it ended in pudding-like-mud at the head of Elephant Butte Reservoir. Too thick to paddle across and too thin to walk on, I crawled across the mud on my belly, canoe in tow. This was the end of the Upper Rio Grande.
The gates of Elephant Butte and its sister dam, Caballo, open only for the irrigation season, which can be as short as six weeks. The rest of the year no water passes the dams, save for that which seeps through the surrounding rocks or condenses in the structure’s access tunnels.
In order to grow cottonwoods along the riverbank to restore habitat, the International Boundary and Water Commission had to lease irrigation water. The planted trees had no legal claim to water.
There would be nothing to paddle again for 360 miles.
Walking the river was mind numbing. The pecan orchards to either side offered inviting shade but hid swarms of mosquitos and, paradoxically, mud. In this parched landscape, farmers flood their pecan orchards a foot deep, every other week.
There was no wildlife, except for an occasional buzzard circling overhead.
I reached the border on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence day. On river left, behind a border wall of steel mesh, was El Paso, Texas. Armed U.S. Border Patrol agents stared across the cement and sand of the dry river channel at Ciudad Juarez, where holiday crowds rode bikes and walked in the cool morning air.
Downstream from the cities, the flood control structures faded away, along with the fences and the border patrol agents. Channel-scouring floods have not occurred in this section since Elephant Butte was finished in 1916. This is the start of the Forgotten Reach.
The river channel, along with the farms and families its water once sustained, are mostly gone. In its place is a solid thicket of salt cedar. The only paths through it are the tunnels carved by cattle, deer and hogs.
I followed the tunnels until I realized the stopping and crawling would go on for days. I tried walking along the stagnant pools the collect in the remains of the river until the ankle-deep water became pungent, knee-deep mud. After a day I could take no more and climbed out of the floodplain to follow the river’s path along the mesa- tops. Now I could make miles. The only problem was there was no water.
The backup plan of asking for water at ranches marked on the map fell through,as one ranch after another turned out to be abandoned. The two gallons of water I started with was reduced to half a pint.
Over the crest of a hill I spied a patch of a dark green. Jose Jesus Octaviano Parada is the only farmer left on the U.S. side of the river. He got lucky with a well that hit water at 40 feet and produces enough to support 15 acres of alfalfa. The water is too salty to drink, but it keeps his field producing.
Parada’s father told him 80 years ago that the river was always full of water by Mother’s Day. In those days, the Rio Grande sustained the whole valley. Cottonwoods thrived in the moist soil. Cotton, hay fields and ranches kept the economy going and the single-room schoolhouses full.
Parada now hauls his drinking water two hours over dirt roads. He gave me as much as I could drink and carry. That evening I ran into the Tarango and Barragan families, who were rounding up stray cattle along the river. Their herds survive on warm water that bubbles up from an abandoned oil well. It carries the faint aroma of ammonia, but the cattle don’t seem to mind. The families haul their own drinking water on the same road Parada does, and were just as generous with it.
I took water from strangers three more times as I stumbled the last 120 miles into La Junta, where the Rio Conchos flows out of Mexico and revives the Rio Grande as a river.
People have farmed this valley continuously since at least 1500 B.C. The confluence of the two rivers doubled the chance of having water in the middle of an inhospitable desert. The floods deposited thick topsoil with a unique mixture of minerals that locals claim allows them to grow the sweetest melons and onions in the world.
But with the construction of Elephant Butte, upstream interests claimed and use up all of the Rio Grande’s water. If explorers were to map the Rio Grande today, it would be two rivers: the Rio Conchos, flowing from Mexico and then along the border to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rio Grande, from its source in Colorado to the Elephant Butte reservoir. The 360 miles of overgrown arroyo and dry engineered channels I’d just walked would merit at most a dashed line, and perhaps not even a name.
When I passed through the confluence seemed a hopeless place, mired in shortsighted ideals of the last two centuries and too poor for outsiders to care. But it may soon become a testing ground for cutting-edge water- use policies.
The idea of a cross-border park in Big Bend has been around since 1935. Over the last decade it’s become more formal, with designated protection in Mexico and an official border crossing so tourist and researchers can travel directly from one to the other.
For Jeffery Bennett, a hydrologist for Big Bend National Park, it is a chance to introduce new ideas for managing the Rio Grande as a watershed rather than a single delivery channel.
By studying where the water comes from, how sediment moves and the role plants play, scientists on both sides of the border can better understand how the Rio Grande works. That science can provide an understanding of how the operation of dams impacts the river, and how changes can benefit both countries.
“As the science grows the hope is that it will be ready for when people are sick of the status quo,” Bennett said. “If and when people decided that they want to protect these things, we will be ready.”
When that time will come is anyone’s guess. There’s no question the Rio Grande’s water is over-allocated, but public discussion of the problem consist mostly of people defending their own claims, while dismissing others’ as wasteful.
“We have to get beyond the blame game. It’s getting us nowhere,” New Mexico Senator Tom Udall told me in April. Udall was paddling the Big Bend with friends, including Dan Reicher, who in 1977 was the lead kayaker for the first documented expedition to paddle the Rio Grande from source to sea. Reicher had taken an interest in my descent, and after I finished he invited me to join him and Udall on the river for a few days.
I brought homemade chili. Udall brought Tequila Reserva and cigars. We talked about water every chance we had.
Udall has dealt with water policy all of his political life. You could say it’s in his blood; the Udall family has been a political force in the arid west for four generations. His father, Stewart Udall, was secretary of the interior in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and helped pass the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, the Water Quality Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
As we watched the Milky Way emerge above the canyon walls, Udall reduced the problem to basics: While the federal government built the dams, the power to decide where the water goes rests mostly with the states, irrigation districts and municipalities. Locals control the water, and they decide the fate of the river on a daily basis.
There is no immediate benefit or obligation for local authorities to think of those downstream, beyond meeting the minimum legal requirements. Politics does not reward the unpleasant reality that water is limited. Building more dams and bigger pipelines has been the go to solution for the last century. But the era of massive federally funded projects is over.
“Solving our water problems with building is the thinking of the past,” Udall says. “We have to talk about limitations. …There can’t be a mind set of continuous growth.”
The conversation about what the growing demand by cities mean for the future of farms, or how we will adapt as climate change reduces supply is happening in fits and starts among disconnected groups. But most of us don’t know where our water comes from or the consequences of taking it.
It’s so easy to be disconnected. I forgot the Rio Grande was a river after traveling along it for 1,000 miles. I saw it as a ditch.
Then the rocks started to fall.
From a cave well away from the river, I watched the river continue to rise as mats of invasive cane and small trees churned in the rapids. The River was rebuilding itself and reclaiming old channels. I though of Suina and her dam, and stayed out of the way.
A few weeks later I paddled into Amistad Reservoir. It was the same pattern of before: The entire river diverted for farms and cities, leaving a trickle too shallow to float an unloaded canoe. Flora and fauna dominated by a few species. Raw sewage flowing into the river.
Paddling around a bend headed into Laredo I saw a three men and two women silently wadding and floating across the
river with inner tubes. A border patrol truck was parked nearby, hidden by the high bank. I froze as the group crawled out on the U.S. shore and crouched out of sight from the federal agent.
Our eyes met as the canoe drifted closer.
They smiled, waved and asked me about the fishing in hushed tones. They were headed for Houston and wished they could spend some time on the river.
Everyone along the Rio Grande, from the drug smugglers to the lawyers, seemed to have the same set of questions. How’s the fishing? What is the river like upstream? Could they paddle too?
Throughout my trip, strangers offered home-cooked meals, took me up in their planes to scout the river, and shared the keys to their trucks and homes. The river seemed equally generous. Despite the levies, border walls and pollution, despite the hundreds of miles of dry riverbed and impassable brush, the Rio Grande is not dead. It bounces down rapids, carves deep canyons and makes broad sweeping turns through the farmland it nourishes. On the whole, it’s a wonderful place to paddle.
Nearing the Gulf, I slipped by the remains of a Civil War fort. There were palm trees and shore birds. When I reached the sea I dug out the first water sample I had taken more than two vertical miles higher and seven months prior.
Then I broke the seal and poured the clear fresh water into the murky waves.
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