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Disappearing Rio Grande Expedition Recap

In which we review the latest from Colin and Erich's excellent Rio Grande adventure. Check out the dispatches and photos!

by Colin McDonald, Erich Schlegel and Jessi Loerch
Garret Schooley, left, and Neil Cheesewright take a two man raft down the Upper Box of the Rio Grande Gorge.

Over the last two weeks, intrepid Rio Grande adventurers Colin McDonald and Erich Schlegel have been making their way through New Mexico. Check out what they've been up to on the riverHere are some highlights:

•    McDonald checks in with a field report from the agrarian-based Santo Domingo Pueblo.

The problem is that the style of flood irrigation the pueblo has practiced for several hundred years is increasingly difficult to do. There is less water available from the river and more competition for it. Relations with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which delivers the water from the Rio Grande, have not been well.  The irrigation ditches are sinking below the farm fields they serve.  

On top of that, the periodic floods that sweep down from the mountains on both sides of the valley are becoming bigger and are carrying more sediment.  Fields are buried in cobbles. Roads are washed out. The mud and rocks carried by the floodwaters plug the irrigation and drainage ditches, which then burst and cause more flooding.  

But the farming will go on.

•    McDonald has a report on the fight over the endangered silvery minnow.

In the history of water policy in the Western United States, the concept that some portion of the water in a river should be left to reach the sea is relatively new. Elephant Butte Dam was finished on the Rio Grande in 1916 and built so the irrigation districts could use every drop of water by the time it hit El Paso. 

And as such, the silvery minnow has lost almost all its historical habitat from north of Cochiti Dam in Northern New Mexico to Boca Chica Beach on the Gulf Coast. Now the fish occupies between 5 percent and 10 percent of that on the reach between Cochiti and Elephant Butte.  

The minnow defines what it means to be endangered. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found three fish living in the wild.  In 2012 it found 0.

•    And McDonald profiles alfalfa farmer Corkey Herkenhoff.

He can trace the ownership of his land back to the late 1600s. Historical research is not a hobby.  He had to do it to prove he had senior water rights.  Of everything on his 750-acre farm, water is his most valuable asset. 

He knows that the purchase prices of the neighbors’ farms were determined by their water rights. Those who are buying are not interested in farming but instead in eventually selling or leasing that water to the growing cities and their suburbs.  

He understands that, at 73, he is probably the last one in his family who will farm at Indian Hill.  

“My plan is to not die,” he said.

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