The Rio Grande emerges, as free as a river can be, from a snowfield at Stony Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. For the first 20 miles of its course, the flows are dictated by snowpack, rain and temperature.
Then the river meets its first dam and becomes an irrigation system regulated by treaties, state compacts and local operating agreements. Dams and levees control every drop of water the river holds for the next 1,800 miles. The water is all over-allocated and lawsuits about its use reach as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
No other major river in the United States is predicted to change more as climate patterns shift. Droughts will be longer, the floods larger. The snowpack will shrink and melt sooner. The monsoon rains will be bigger.
On June 21, photographer Erich Schlegel and I began following the Rio Grande by foot, kayak and canoe to document how changes to the river impact the people and places that depend on it. If all goes to plan, we should reach the Gulf of Mexico in January.
On Aug. 29, we reached Elephant Butte Dam in Southern New Mexico. The river is stopped there in an attempt to fill the reservoir, which was 7% full when we arrived. The only water flowing through was from a pipe collecting condensation from inside the concrete dam itself.
We are now in El Paso. There is no river here, just a cement lined ditch with Border Patrol agents and a fence on one side and a bike path and highway on the other. It’s actually the headwaters for the second Rio Grande. This is the one that maintains farming in The Valley and kitchen taps flowing in Brownsville and Matamoras.
The ditch and clear signal that the water of the Rio Grande has no place being in the channel of the Rio Grande is not out of place. For most of its length the river functions more like a drainage ditch than an actual river channel.
Few know the river as a whole anyway.
It’s too long and has too little water for boaters. I have already walked 120 miles and expect to walk another 300 before there is enough water to float a canoe again. There is no government body, conservation group or industry that covers the full river.
Yet, on every reach of the Rio Grande we meet people who love the river and are working on shaping its future. They are building wetlands, removing old dams and questioning why the river is controlled by water policy dating to the 19th century.
The Rio Grande itself is changing. It is more than four million years old. It has carved through mountain ranges. In less than 150 years it will fill the reservoirs with sediment. Levees will suffer a similar fate.
Everything along it is temporary.
We have started a campaign on Kickstarter to help offset our expenses for food, campground fees and gear. Our ultimate goal is to raise $25,000 and this will help us get there.
*Featured/top image: LAS CRUCES, NM – Erich Schlegel, photojournalist, left, and writer Colin McDonald in the dry Rio Grande River in Las Cruces, New Mexico. SEPTEMBER 8, 2014: CREDIT: Erich Schlegel/Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition.