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Documenting the Vanishing Rio Grande

Colin McDonald is traveling the entire 1,900-mile length of the river, talking to people whose livelihoods depend on it and raising awareness about why the river is in decline.

by Sasha Von Oldershausen
Nov 20 2014, 9:30pm

Image via Flickr

"You mess with the Hudson River and millions of people will hear about it. You mess with the Rio Grande and few people notice," Colin McDonald, a 32-year-old writer who set out on June 19th to travel the entire 1,900 mile length of the Rio Grande, told VICE News.

The problem is, though, there isn't much river left for him to follow.

The point of McDonald's epic journey is to talk to people whose livelihoods depend on the river and to raise awareness of a resource that is rapidly diminishing. He is documenting his trek at Disappearing Rio Grande, where he has been uploading blog posts from the banks of the river via satellite and plotting his progress with a GPS tracking devise.

"When there's water, I float. When there's not, I walk," McDonald told VICE News.

If the Rio Grande had water consistently running through it — and at one point not so long ago it did — it would be the fourth longest river in the United States. The reality is, however, that upstream from Big Bend National Park a swathe of the Rio Grande more than 300 miles long is nothing but dry riverbed. In El Paso, Texas much of it has been diverted for irrigation. And at Boca Chica Beach, where the Rio Grande terminates at the Gulf of Mexico, and where McDonald's journey will conclude in late January, the river is so severely diminished it sometimes fails to reach the sea.

"There are so few people with eyes on this river," McDonald said. "No other major river in America is going to be impacted more by climate change than the Rio Grande because it spends most of its time running through desert and it's already way over-allocated."

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In the course of his journey, McDonald has seen the river transform from the opulent headwaters of Colorado's San Juan Mountains into something akin to a drainage ditch in El Paso. Lecturing during a stopover at West Texas' Sul Ross State University, McDonald projected slides of his expedition. In one photograph, the Rio Grande was little more than a trickle, and McDonald was frozen mid-air as he effortlessly leapt over the "big river."

"I've spoken with everyone from farmers who barely made it out of the third grade to PhD professors, and the ones who are very in tune with the river have all the same observations," McDonald said. "The river is much less reliable, there's much less of it, and the quality is not nearly the same as what it was."

Atmospheric temperatures in the Upper Rio Grande — from the river's headwaters in Colorado to Paso del Norte, Texas some 350 miles downstream — has been steadily increasing since 1970 — a trend that the US Bureau of Reclamation expects to continue. And with river flows decreasing, there isn't enough volume to carry sediment along the course of the Rio Grande, which causes it to accumulate. When that happens the amount of water the river can absorb during a deluge decreases, leading to frequent flooding.

Dwindling snowpack near the river's source combined with the sediment buildup means surface water supplies are projected to fall 50 percent by 2060. For centuries the river has been the lifeblood of agricultural communities that settled along its banks. But the number of people that live adjacent to the Rio Grande has doubled every 20 years since the 1950s and the river can no longer meet the growing demand for water.

Colin McDonald talks to Urbano Franco, a farmer from Ojinaga, Texas, whose land has felt the effects of the depleting Rio Grande. (Photo by Sasha Von Oldershausen)

In the middle of a dirt road on the outskirts of Ojinaga, a border town in Mexico located near the intersection of the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos, McDonald speaks with Urbano Franco, a farmer whose family has relied on water from both rivers for generations.

For the past 15 years, Franco told McDonald, he's been unable to rely on the river for irrigation. With the exception of a small field of cotton, which he irrigates with water from the Conchos, his land lies fallow and is used to graze livestock. With little farm work to do, Franco spends much of his time at the rodeo.

McDonald has heard similar stories all along the river. In Presidio, a rural West Texas town formed by farmers, some 90 percent of the land remains uncultivated due to the lack of viable water sources. Here, the Rio Grande simply doesn't function as a river anymore.

"It gets kind of philosophical," McDonald told VICE News. "We're really good at managing rivers — it's what civilizations have been based off forever. But of course people have different priorities and the challenge is figuring out what we want the Rio Grande to be."

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Since the 19th century, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) has overseen surface water policy on the Rio Grande. But the IBWC's primary objective is to ensure the equitable allocation and distribution of the river's resources to the US and Mexico. As far as water conservation is concerned — well, it's not really a concern yet.

"We have a decent history on water supply cooperation," Jurgen Schmandt, a University of Texas professor specializing in environmental policy, told VICE News. "But we have a total blank page as far as the success of environmental cooperation is concerned."

On an early morning in late October, McDonald paddled a nearly 40-mile stretch of the Rio Grande running along Big Bend National Park. This would be the first time in the past 360 miles of McDonald's journey that there was enough water to accommodate his boat.

McDonald navigated the river and the seemingly giant divide between the US and Mexico felt momentarily diminished as fishermen on both sides of the river sought the same prize. Burros watched silently from an overlook and flocks of vultures congregated on either side, oblivious to the border. It became clear how much life here relied on this water source and how little the international border played a role in this ecosystem.

"In the end the only solutions that are sustainable are ones based on cooperation and partnerships and trust and that all starts with people talking," McDonald said. "And people are excited to talk about the Rio Grande."

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Follow Sasha Von Oldershausen on Twitter: @sashavono

Image via Flickr