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Grande Slam

Although it's rarely paddled these days, the dehydrated Rio Grande can still hand out a drubbing.

Text by Frank Clifford | Photos by Rob Kesselring

The final product looked like a soap dish, but it floated, and it didn't leak. The first test was a rocky, zigzag rapid nine miles downstream. The rebuilt canoe survived without a dent.

That evening, we made camp below Burro Bluff, on a sandy shelf between salmon-colored cliffs that framed a night sky incandescent with stars. We were on the Mexican side of the river, where we were easy prey for local bandits, according to a Border Patrol agent who admonished us after the trip was over for not being armed. But in this place, cradled by towering walls that had stood sentinel for centuries, we felt only a sense of profound well-being.

We were more careful from there on, hauling the canoes around several of the remaining rapids. Like Hill and his crew a century ago, we had the river to ourselves. (A National Park Service logbook had earlier showed that no other groups had visited the lower canyons in more than two months.) The specters of illegal aliens and drug smugglers have reduced recreation in the area, even though Border Patrol statistics for the past several years indicate that illegal immigration through the Big Bend region is a trickle compared with virtually all the other sectors of the border from San Diego to South Texas.

By the time we departed the lower canyons, our clothes were spackled with sediment, a grimy keepsake of an ailing river. The Rio Grande nourishes one of the great expanses of wild country on the continent; no other aquatic habitat in the region hosts more species, according to park scientist Bennett. But as the sediment accumulates, the river suffocates in its own mud. The precedent has already been set upstream from Big Bend, where a 200-mile stretch known as the Forgotten Reach is barely wet much of the year.

A generation ago, raft trips down the Rio Grande through Big Bend were commonplace. For the river to thrive again, Mexico will have to agree to more releases from the Rio Conchos. Such a deal won't come easy, especially as climate change and population growth lay claim to surplus flows. The United States and Mexico recently came to an agreement that allows more flow from the Colorado River to reach that river's water-starved delta. But to date, there has been little movement toward a similar accord on the Rio Grande. These days, restoration efforts are for the most part limited to costly, painstaking cane-eradication projects in Big Bend National Park.

Those of us fortunate enough to paddle the river through the lower canyons won't soon forget the experience: the stillness, the stars, the soaring buttes, the stone remnants of ancient settlements, the cougar tracks in the sand—all part of the "noble surroundings" that Robert Hill described a century ago. They seemed timeless then. Not anymore.

Frank Clifford, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and editor, wrote The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide (Broadway, 2003).


In 2007, the Texas state legislature, with much urging from the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter and the National Wildlife Foundation, passed a bill designed to improve the health of the state's major rivers—and the bays and estuaries into which they flow. Senate Bill 3 calls for scientists to determine how much water each river needs to maintain a vibrant ecology and mandates meetings between environmentalists and other stakeholders, such as farmers, water districts, and municipalities, to establish "environmental flow standards" for the waterways. We asked Tyson Broad, longtime research associate with the Lone Star Chapter, to explain how these ongoing efforts might affect the Rio Grande.

Sierra: From an outsider's perspective, it's strange to think of the Rio Grande as having a natural ecosystem, since we usually just view it as a cartographic feature—a line on a map. How do most Texans regard it?

Tyson Broad: Most people here identify with the river only because it's our southern boundary. But it's interesting: The poster child for the effort to get Senate Bill 3 passed was an aerial shot that showed the Rio Grande stopping just short of the Gulf of Mexico. The river was so heavily utilized and so overrun by invasive species that it had stopped flowing into the gulf. That became the symbol of what we as Texans needed to do if we want to save our rivers. Because in Texas, if you want to get people motivated, you do things as Texans, together.

Sierra: The Rio Grande is about 1,900 miles long, but it seems that relatively few people ever see it in person.

Broad: It's true. Most folks don't have a relationship with the river from a natural perspective. Some people experience it at Big Bend National Park, but that's not easy to get to.

Sierra: The stretch of river that Frank Clifford writes about here has a steady flow of water, thanks to local springs. But the vast majority of the Rio Grande is in pretty bad shape, yes?

Broad: It's one of the most degraded rivers in the state. We'll never get the flows back to what they were historically, because you've got dams all along the system. That's one of the Rio Grande's biggest problems: It doesn't get the big flushing flows that it used to get to transport the sediment downstream. The channel is becoming narrower and narrower.

Sierra: Safe to say, you'll never impose restrictions that are designed to save only the Rio Grande. Because it's not just about the river's health; it's about all the people who use it as a resource.

Broad: Right. It's a balancing act. That's what the stakeholders are tasked to do once they get the scientific recommendation: to balance the needs of the river with human water demands. As you can imagine, those debates can get contentious, but the process provides an opportunity to work together to find solutions. —interview by Steve Hawk

GET INVOLVED Learn more about efforts to save the Rio Grande from the Texas Living Waters Project, a partnership between the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the Galveston Bay Foundation; and from the Trans Pecos Water and Land Trust.

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