2015 Feature, Small Newsroom finalist

Disappearing Rio Grande

Colin McDonald

The Texas Tribune

Feature, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

On June 21, Colin McDonald went in search of the Rio Grande.

He started by following drips of snowmelt down the eastern side of the Continental Divide in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. At 12,500 feet, he found a suitable stream gushing out from under a snowfield.

For the next seven months, he traced the river’s course through burned forests, drained lakes and the most productive pecan orchards in the world.

McDonald sought to tell the stories of the communities flanking the Rio Grande — residents facing a disappearing river that is becoming hidden behind an increasingly militarized border.

Accompanied by talented photographers and supported by dedicated editors and developers, McDonald traveled 1,900 miles by foot, kayak, canoe and raft to the Gulf of Mexico — performing water quality tests and using satellite pings to track his progress along the way.

There was deep beauty, and great drama. Photographer Erich Schlegel captured the life-giving power of water in Colorado and the subtle and unrelenting force of moving mud in New Mexico. In Texas, Jessica Lutz showed the grit of those living off the land. Mike Kane documented the joy of fishermen who dwell in caves. McDonald told stories of being pulled from his kayak by the strength of the river and hearing unidentifiable noises in the night. Back at home, developer Ryan Murphy built an expedition website worthy of the endeavor.

But no stories were more important than those on the river. Over-allocated and engineered to meet the ideals of 19th century settlers, the Rio Grande is divided into two separate basins that are rarely connected by flowing water. McDonald walked along 360 miles of dry riverbed between them.

In Colorado, McDonald wrote about farmers, state bureaucrats and environmentalists working together to restore an aquifer previous generations had drained. Their goal was to replenish the Rio Grande for endangered species and their children.

In New Mexico, the Pueblos are starting a new revolt to take back stewardship of their land and the Rio Grande by educating their youth to be warriors in the fields of biology, engineering and law.

And in Texas and Mexico, large sections of the Rio Grande are forgotten. Cities in Mexico use the Rio Grande as an open sewer. The United States hides it behind a border wall. Both governments are permitting open pit mines for low-grade coal along the river’s banks.

But the resilient river cleans itself with riffles and sunshine. Monsoon rains replenish it. Locals get beyond border fences to swim, fish, bird watch and paddle.

More than 30 of these paddlers joined McDonald for the last 12 miles of the Rio Grande. They came to be part of the journey, and to find the river McDonald had introduced them to 1,900 miles upstream.

It was environmental reporting at its most basic and utilitarian — aided by technological innovations in journalism.