POULSBO-The Rio Grande is disappearing. Slowly but surely, less and less water is flowing from the snow peaks of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Just shy of a year ago, Colin McDonald travelled along the Rio Grande to learn more about the damages being done to this majestic river.
“The world is changing very quickly; the Rio Grande happens to be an easy place to see those changes,” said McDonald.
McDonald graduated from North Kitsap High School in 2004 before attending Western Washington University. After graduating, McDonald began working for Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 2007, he moved to the San Antonio Express-News covering water and environment. That’s where this project came to life.
“I was covering all Texas spaces covering water and this was a dramatic example,” said McDonald. “I wanted to find a way to get issues across in a meaningful way, and to make people understand in a meaningful way.”
On June 18, 2014, McDonald and company set out along the river.
The Rio Grande spans 1,900 miles from the southern peaks of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Although it travels a relatively short journey through the state, the Rio Grande depends on the melting snow from the mountains of Colorado’s San Luis Valley to deliver a significant amount of the water that will supply farmers and towns in New Mexico and Texas, and if there’s enough left, Mexico. In recent years, however, the Rio Grande has gone from an expansive river, supplying these people with the water they need, to being so thin in places that one could jump across the river without getting wet.
A drought and less than effective water use has infected the area for the last 20 years. Although, there has been more rain in the spring of 2015 than in recent years, the issues are still prevalent.
“These issues aren’t going to go away with a little rain storm, these issues have been around for a long time,” said McDonald.
Along with rainfall, one constant problem is the prediction of the melting snowcaps. Predictions over the years have been plagued with inaccuracies, causing thousands of people in New Mexico and Texas to go without the water expected and needed for crops.
In attempts to rectify this issue, however, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is partnering with local, state and federal agencies to improve the forecast by using new observation methods of snowfall and ground water. The pilot program is on track to start operations for 2016.
“This is really cool. The issues of how this melting water and ground water relate is amazing science,” said McDonald.
Water from the Colorado snow peaks has not reached the Gulf of Mexico in close to 50 years, after the construction of the Elephant Butte Dam. With wrong forecasts, new irrigations and lack of rain, most of the snowmelt evaporates from reservoirs, lawns and farm fields before it reaches the Gulf. At the start of his journey, McDonald collected water from the snow peaks and dumped it in to the Gulf at the end, carrying it with him through the entire excursion.
Along the journey through the river, McDonald and his group encountered inhabitants of the river that provided a real sense of community; not unlike the community in Kitsap.
“That was a big reason to do the trip by boat and foot, to get access to the local people,” said McDonald.
McDonald encountered farmers, fisherman, families who moved to the river to escape overwhelming city life and people who put it on themselves to preserve the river and its natural wildlife, all who took interest in this project. Some even joined McDonald and company for the last 12 miles of the trip to the Gulf, where he emptied the vial of Colorado water.
“We were invited in to homes, we met bands, we met researchers and biologists, ecologists who were envious of our trip. It was something they’d always wanted to do,” said McDonald. “They would invite us in to their homes and say ‘hey, you ask me questions, I’ll ask you questions,’ and we’d both leave happy having gained much more.”
McDonald said it was the people who made the experience real. “They explain to you how they see the river and how it has changed, as a journalist they made my writing better. Otherwise it would have simply been: today was a long day, I saw a bird.”
Describing himself as “not really a Texan,” McDonald said he would love to be back in Washington.
“I would love to do a similar project on the Salish Sea-Puget Sound, Straight of Juan De Fuca, Straight of Georgia,” said McDonald.
He said that Kitsap is very fortunate because the ground water sources used get replenished so easily. However, one could look across Liberty Bay and see not as much snow as there used to be.
“Science says that the Southwest is most likely to become drier, with more water pumped in to the atmosphere,” said McDonald.
Although there are bigger snow packs in the North Cascades, it is hard to say what will happen in the Northwest.
“Things in the world are changing,” said McDonald. “Things are changing quickly. It’s fun to watch, but it’s scary.”
You can read about McDonald’s excursion down the Rio Grande at: http://riogrande.texastribune.org/