Goodbye to a river: as Rio Grande dries up, tourism industry braces for impact 

Tanya and Sina Q. of Seattle, WA hike in the dry riverbed in Santa Elena Canyon Wednesday morning. Normally, this is the place where Terlingua Creek flows into the Rio Grande — both have gone dry over the past month. Staff photo by Sam Karas.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — On April 25, Redford-based river guide and outfitter Charlie Angell posted a video to his company’s Instagram page. The video shows a canoe parked in a sandy Terlingua Creek, panning over the dry Rio Grande riverbed in Santa Elena Canyon. “Flow has ceased — sin agua,” he says in the background. “Worst drought ever, in my lifetime, at least.”

Normally, the flow is low enough this time of year that guests hoping for a tour through Santa Elena paddle upstream a few miles and then turn around, a trip known in the industry as a “boomerang.” Angell and his crew had been watching the river gradually dry up all spring — he ran the trip a week before he took the video, determined even then it’d be the last until the water came back. “We were dragging more than paddling — [the clients] were exhausted by the end.” 

Angell has been in front of the camera numerous times, schlepping gear for PBS nature documentarians and hosting a riverside dinner party on Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” His video of the dry river, though, was his first in-house production to go viral. 

The video first made the rounds on local Instagram, then got picked up by regional media Twitter. It eventually wound up on the Weather Channel. Calls started coming in from friends around the country who recognized his voice. “It’s the one channel everybody watches,” he said. 

Other photographs started circulating — one, by former National Park Service biologist Raymond Skiles, showed a dry-up in Mariscal Canyon, which forms the titular “big bend” of Big Bend National Park. The instagram grid for Santa Elena — much more accessible to the majority of park visitors — started picking up more snaps from visitors to the bone-dry riverbed. 

The Rio Grande has always been known as a river of extremes. For every story of the river drying up, there’s another story of it spilling over its banks. The Texas Department of Transportation yards in Presidio and Terlingua are full of machines built to scoop mud out of flooded arroyos and repair roadside gauges blasted apart by the water’s swell. 

When Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca visited in 1535, he compared the Rio Grande to the Guadalquivir River — Spain’s major river. When famed geologist Robert T. Hill floated the canyons in 1901, he considered Santa Elena’s signature rapid too beastly to run, opting instead to carry boats and equipment over a series of footholds in the cliff walls better suited to mountain goats.

Fluctuations in the river’s flow are part of a healthy riparian ecosystem. Floods help the river self-regulate, flushing out invasive species and moving debris, rocks, and silt further downstream. The last major flood was in 2008, which wiped out the highway between Presidio and Terlingua and put the Lajitas Resort golf course under several feet of water. 

Despite the Rio Grande’s tendency to surprise, those who know the river agree: the river is changing, and it’s getting drier. “I don’t see the future of the river [as] very optimistic, and I’ve been optimistic all my life,” said Ernesto Hernández, co-founder of Boquillas Adventures, a guiding operation that focuses on trips into the protected areas of Coahuila, Mexico. “When you are involved with rivers, you understand their cycles. I’ve been watching this river die.”

Hernández first visited the Big Bend in the early 1990s, after meeting Mike Davidson, part of the original team at Far Flung Adventures. At the time, the river was high enough for rafting year-round. “That was the beauty of this place,” said Darren Wallis, who started guiding in Terlingua in 1992. Unlike rivers in popular rafting destinations like Colorado and Idaho, the lower Rio Grande doesn’t freeze over. Winter temperatures can be chilly, but don’t get cold enough to impede year-round boating. 

The Big Bend earned a reputation as “raft guide vacation,” a place boatmen from distant rivers could come between seasons. The runs weren’t as technical, but the scenery was beautiful and the work was steady. “There was plenty of water. To make it worthwhile for our guests without there being any whitewater, we would prepare wonderful meals, we would put together specialty trips like our music trips. It was multi-day, high-end camping,” Wallis remembered.

Both Hernández and Wallis were working on the Rio Grande during a massive shift in the local industry: the end of year-round rafting. In 1996, drought drained the river, and it never really came back. 

“There was so much life to perish,” Wallis remembered. “There were big fish dead everywhere, all the mussels, all the insect larva. It stank. It was horrible, it killed off a lot of stuff. We’re approaching that again right now.” 

In 1999 and 2003, the river dried up again. As average river flows dropped, rafts — large inflatable crafts that require deep, swift water to operate — became too unwieldy. “We had to become a canoe company,” Wallis explained. 

The canoes allowed pairs of clients to traverse the river while a guide, paddling solo, carried their gear. While some clients enjoyed the adventure, it was a prohibitively challenging experience for others. “You trim off a good percentage of your business if people know they’re gonna have to participate,” Wallis said.

The shift to canoes made it possible for outfitters to once again offer year-round trips, but they fundamentally changed the dynamic of a Big Bend river tour. A number of Wallis’ and Hernandez’s colleagues quit the industry, citing both safety concerns and a river culture they felt was being stubbed out.

“You used to have four or five people who are an audience and you’re there, very close. Now you are alone in your canoe,” Hernández explained. “Guides are the most important element in this whole industry, because you’re the connection with the public. You’re the face of the company, you’re the face of the destination.”

Angell had the great fortune of starting his business in 2008 — a flood year. “I bought a canoe and was like, ‘Holy s—, it’s capsizing,’” he remembered. “So then I rafted for a good year and a half while there was still large amounts of water and built up the canoe fleet after that. I didn’t know that it would get so low.” 

Wallis noticed that, over the past couple of years, the low flows have substantially altered the bottom of the river. “My observation is that the river isn’t carving the canyon anymore, it’s silting it in,” he said. With each drought, sediment has built up in the bottom of the river, and there haven’t been any floods to wash it away. 

There is a spot on the canyon wall where he helped rescue a Park Service team that had pinned a raft against the wall at high water — now, that spot is just a few feet above the bottom of the dry riverbed. “It gives me an idea of how much the bottom of the river has come up. I can remember spaces on the wall and things that are now gone,” he said. 

Unlike industry guides virtually anywhere else, Big Bend outfitters need a deep understanding of international water policy. Wallis, Angell, and Hernández agreed: world events about a hundred years ago set today’s water crisis in motion. 

“1915 was a seminal moment,” Wallis said. That’s the year the Elephant Butte Dam just outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, finished construction on the Upper Rio Grande; a year prior, Mexican authorities had completed La Boquilla Dam on the Conchos River, about two hours south of Chihuahua City. 

Thanks to the Elephant Butte Dam, the Rio Grande effectively became two rivers — the Upper Rio Grande, which flows from south-central Colorado to El Paso, and the Lower Rio Grande, which flows from Presidio to the Gulf of Mexico. The “forgotten reach” in between has almost permanently gone dry, and overgrowth of thirsty invasive species like salt cedar have ensured that it probably never will flow again. 

In the late 19th century, a trio of water gauge stations were installed near La Junta, the place near Presidio and Ojinaga where the Rio Conchos flows into the Rio Grande. The International Water and Boundary Commission has flow data online dating back to New Year’s Day, 1900. “That’s almost 20 years of unimpeded, natural flowing river stream gauge data,” Wallis explained.

In looking through the historical data, Wallis made a surprising observation: even in the years before the dams were completed, the Rio Grande was known to occasionally go dry. “It’s pretty telling there were a number of months in that tabulation that the Rio Grande was dry back then, and that 70% of the water that entered into the Rio Grande drainage to flow [through the National Park] came from the Conchos.”

Hernández pointed out that the construction of Elephant Butte, La Boquilla, and numerous other dams on the Rios Conchos and Grande occurred during the Mexican Revolution. “In my personal opinion, dams are the most incredible mistake humans made,” Hernández said. “We need the electricity and the energy, but we didn’t understand all the consequences of damming the river.” 

The Revolution led to a massive reorganization of land throughout the country — in the Big Bend, cooperatives called ejidos emerged from what had once been subsistence family farms along the river, and a new maze of bureaucracy emerged to administer the water, the dams, the farms, and everything in between. 

In February 1944 — a few months before President Roosevelt signed a proclamation establishing Big Bend National Park — the United States and Mexico signed a treaty determining each nation’s allocation of the water in the Colorado River and the Rio Grande — two of the West’s most critical and endangered water systems.

The treaty stipulates that the United States gets to keep water that flows into the Rio Grande from tributary sources on the American side like Terlingua Creek and the Devil’s River. In addition, Mexico must pay a water debt to the United States of 350,000 acre-feet per year, measured in five-year cycles. 

An ‘acre-foot’ is roughly enough to put a football field under one foot of water. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that one acre-foot of water is enough to sustain the household needs of six Texans for one year. 

As the river has dried up, the five-year debt cycle has become a political flashpoint in Mexico. Protests broke out in Ojinaga in June 2020 as Mexico started releasing water from the Luis Leon reservoir to pay off a debt racked up in the previous five-year cycle — during the climax of the protests, a government vehicle at the plaza was overturned and set on fire. Local farmers accused Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador of putting Mexican farmers at risk to serve the interests of the United States. 

Angell explained that the treaty allows Mexico to adapt their payment cycle to the river’s fluctuations, but the political climate can make asking for these extensions more complicated. “Trump was in his last year as president and they knew he would say ‘f— you’, so they just decided they had to dump. In Mexico, farmers were rioting at the reservoirs because they could see how low it was going. I’ve never seen them dump the reservoirs that low before.”

Mexican politics has also seen a pendulum swing between presidential attitudes toward the treaties. “It’s important to understand that Mexico has seen a major change in parties since 2000,” Hernández explained. “The 90s was one particular line of politics, and then, boom, you have Vincente Fox.” 

Fox broke a 71-year winning streak for the PRI, a political party formed in Mexico just after the Revolution. He rose to power in the late 90s, in the years after the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), eliminating tariffs on products bought and sold between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. NAFTA fundamentally altered the demand for agricultural products grown in Mexico, and incentivized Mexican farmers to produce for an international market.

In the Big Bend, the “giant sucking sound” invoked by presidential candidate Ross Perot to protest NAFTA isn’t the sound of jobs going south, but of all the thirsty pecan orchards that have popped up at La Junta in the past thirty years. 

“Pecans are about the thirstiest tree there is,” said Angell, who often takes clients on road trips through the orchards outside Ojinaga. The trees are hardy enough to withstand the region’s extreme heat, but require flood irrigation. Demand for the orchards’ products isn’t coming from locals. “About 20% of all the pecans are for U.S. consumption, the remaining 80% is allocated to China.” 

Amid the tangle of international trade interests and water disputes, Wallis feels a neighborly need to defend Mexican interests. “You can’t blame Mexico for the agribusiness they’ve created on the Conchos — NAFTA asked for it,” Wallis said. “So now they’ve got less water to give. And it’s not their fault that the Rio Grande is dried up before the confluence of the rivers.” 

Farmers on the Mexican side of the river in the Big Bend aren’t the only people keeping an eye on local reservoir levels. Snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains came early this year for farmers in New Mexico, who fear the Upper Rio Grande will also go dry by the end of summer. The reservoir at Elephant Butte on the Upper Rio Grande is currently 13% full; Luis Leon on the Conchos is 23% full. 

“I don’t see that changing until the La Niña thing we’re in turns around and/or the five-year [water debt] cycle ends again. We’re four years away from any real relief, unless we get a bunch of rain,” said Angell. 

The dismal forecast has pushed folks in the local river tours industry to adapt. While a trip through Santa Elena is considered the bucket list Big Bend float, that may become an experience of the past. Despite all the bad press, Angell still gets requests to book the trip.

“It’s very difficult to convince people that it’s beyond their scope of athleticism — everyone thinks it’s an inner tube float,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Look, dude, I’d love to take your money, but you can hike into the canyon just as far and a lot quicker and have more fun without dragging a boat behind you.’”

Angell has turned the focus of his business downstream: toward Boquillas, average river flows increase as a number of springs feed into the river from the canyon walls. The river picks up even more volume downstream in a section known as the Lower Canyons, considered one of the country’s premiere canoe trips. 

This spring, he started taking clients down a stretch of river never before commercially run: a 54-mile stretch from Dryden to Langtry. “It’s fantastic, it feels like a combo of the Rio Grande in the Big Bend and the Devil’s River,” he said. The major challenge beyond the remoteness of that section of river is that the beaches are totally unused by anyone but cattle, who don’t observe ‘leave no trace’ regulations. “There’s cow patties everywhere, but we’ve been figuring it out.” 

Hernández, on behalf of Boquillas Adventures, has been trying to grow tourism on the Mexican side of the river. “I’m Mexican, I’m proud. It’s a very good opportunity to present our culture in a different way,” he said. “I think the companies in general need to adapt to this new era — people still need guides. [In the 90s] we proved that you don’t need a guide in a raft, but you do need a guide.”

Hernández hopes that by shifting the focus away from boating and onto observing how locals use and learn from the water, the guiding industry can make a positive impact, whether or not there’s water in the river. “I tell people that it’s not about canoeing, it’s about water conservation. Just like Elon Musk is saying that in our lifetime, we’re going to see people on Mars — well, in our lifetime, we’re seeing rivers dying.” 

In the spring, Boquillas Adventures piloted a four-day trip from Boquillas to Cuatrociénagas, Múzquiz, and the Ocampo Protected Area, “a unique trip to several locations few visitors ever see,” per their Facebook page. Hernández hopes that pushing tourism into lesser-visited areas in Coahuila will diffuse some of the negative impacts of record-smashing visitation to the parks. “I think that we — Mexico — represent a little relief from all this pressure,” he said. 

Hernández has been studying up on water treaty negotiations to put a positive spin on U.S.-Mexico relations — while complicated, the two countries must work together to survive. “The consequences will be brutal for both economies if you don’t have the river. One is the economy related to tourists, but the other is related to the ecology around people,” Hernández explained. 

“There may be a solution — it’s probably very technical,” he continued. “If we have water, and we understand how to manage it, the water will supply life. This river is a laboratory that we need to use to benefit many other rivers.”

Angell, for his part, is leaving it all up to the stars. “There’s an old expression, ‘be prepared for luck’,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. If you want to be lucky, just be prepared.”

This is the first in a series about how people who make their living along the river are faring after the latest dry-up of the Rio Grande. 

Disclosure: Sam Karas is a former contractor for Angell Expeditions.