The Rio Grande. Photo courtesy of Colin McDonald.
The Rio Grande. Photo courtesy of Colin McDonald.

For more than 3,000 years The Rio Grande has been the lifeblood of the valleys and civilizations it passes through. Now cities and farms are sucking the ancient river dry, it is evaporating ever faster and being hidden by a growing border wall.

Its future has never been more in doubt.

The story of what is happening to the Rio Grande – in its entirety – needs to be told. This is my mission.

Colin McDonald reporting on Emory. Courtesy photo.
Colin McDonald reporting on Emory. Courtesy photo.

I’m a journalist who has trouble sitting at a desk and a penchant for small boats and long walks. In June, at the peak of the irrigation season, I’ll begin a seven-month journey following the river’s 1,900-mile course by kayak, canoe and foot from the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.

This expedition is not a test of wills. It is the best way I know to get at the heart of an elusive story about what is happening to the people and ecosystems that depend on a river that is vanishing.

Print journalism now struggles to support this type of reporting. But what is happening to the farms, cities and species of the Rio Grande can’t be ignored. The river cuts through a desert that is heating at twice the rate of the global average. It offers a preview of what lies ahead as climate change alters the earth’s weather patterns.

I received a Scripps Fellowship at the University of Colorado at Boulder for an academic year of research for this project. I left my job as the water and environment reporter at the San Antonio Express-News to pursue it. Now I’m asking for help to cover the cost of the reporting.

This is a very old style of journalism with some very modern twists.

As I travel, I’ll take water quality samples and photos of microorganisms with my cellphone. With that data I’ll document the river’s transformation from one of the best trout streams in Colorado to an open ditch that collects the runoff from cities, farms and the waste from broken sewer pipes.

From the riverbank I will upload these results via satellite along with photos, short stories and videos about the people and places. These will then feed into larger stories about the bigger issues that connect them. All the work will get posted to an interactive map hosted by The Texas Tribune.

For the last century, engineers have manipulated the river to meet the needs of farms, industry and politicians. As a result, cities flourished in the middle of one of the most inhospitable deserts in North America. Now the Bureau of Reclamation warns unprecedented climate change and demand for water are pushing the natural and human systems of the river to the brink of collapse.

The changes are unlike anything anyone has seen before. Farm fields cultivated since 1,500 B.C. are going fallow. Cities are draining aquifers the river once kept full. Other aquifers are becoming so brackish their water kills crops. Spring floods and summer monsoons are predicted to become faster and more destructive. Snowfall is decreasing and fires are razing the forests that hold back the topsoil and regulate runoff.

The scattered walls of steel and cement along the border and attempts to stop illegal crossings add to the complexity. The walls split communities and wildlife habitat as the remains of the river are left to trickle between levees. In these places it is difficult to see the Rio Grande as a river at all.

Bigger dams and levies, the tools of the 20th century, can’t solve these 21st century problems. Instead we have to decide how to use and share the remaining water. Right now there is no section of the river not tied up in a federal lawsuit or international dispute.

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The Rio Grande is not dead. Despite the sewage dumped all along its length, the river’s water is almost clean enough to swim in by the time it reaches the Gulf. Estuaries it once supported are being revitalized. It is still one of the largest and most diverse migratory flyways on the continent. And it supports some of the best cropland for grapefruits, cotton, pecans, potatoes and peppers in the country.

For all these reasons, I am going to follow the river and the stories tied to it. I believe we need to understand the river and what is happening as we decide its fate.

Please, join my campaign at Kickstarter.

Thanks to the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the law firm of Blackburn & Carter, I am halfway to the $12,000 I need to start this work.

*Featured/top image: The Rio Grande. Photo courtesy of Colin McDonald.

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Colin McDonald

Former San Antonio Express-News water and environment reporter Colin McDonald traveled the length of the Rio Grande to report on climate change as one of the worst droughts ever recorded continues. He...