In Far West Texas, a disappearing river poses a challenge to tourism

The Rio Grande in the Big Bend has gone dry for the second year in a row, forcing the local tourism industry to adapt to a new reality.

By Zoe Kurland, Marfa Public RadioJune 13, 2024 10:00 am,

From Marfa Public Radio:

On a hot, dusty day on the border in Far West Texas, the Rio Grande, which separates the state from Mexico, was barely trickling along over a bed of exposed stones. It was low enough to cross on foot.

“You could do it without getting your feet wet, just hopscotch from rock to rock,” said Charlie Angell, a local river guide.

Angell owns Angell Expeditions, a company specializing in river trips. He’s been a guide for 16 years now, and this is the second time he’s seen the Rio Grande in the Big Bend region go dry. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any water, but the river has turned into a path of low, disconnected puddles.

For centuries, the Rio Grande has sustained humans and wildlife ecosystems along the Texas-Mexico border. Some parts of the river have plenty of water, other parts not so much.

In Far West Texas, the Rio Grande serves as an oasis in the desert. For years. It’s been a draw to Big Bend tourists, who come out to canoe or raft. But current water levels have made the river nearly impossible to float down.

As river adventure opportunities become less available, the tourism industry has to adapt to a new reality — one in which parts of the river may disappear entirely.

“It’s been terrible for business, obviously,” Angell said. “I’ve also had clients that really wanted to do a trip, and when it came close, I said look, we can’t do the section you wanted. It’s just dry riverbed.”

He said in the spot where he was standing, there needed to be 25 times more water to float a boat.

Angell’s day trips on the Rio Grande are down by 60% this year. He feels like the river is dying. “You can’t look at it and say, oh, it’ll get better,” Angell said. “I don’t think it will.”

The boathouse at Angell Expeditions headquarters in Redford.
Zoe Kurland / Marfa Public Radio

David Dean, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been studying the Rio Grande in the Big Bend for the past 18 years. He said the river has never been predictable.

“You know, the saying goes, ‘If you fall in the Rio Grande, just get up and dust yourself off,’” Dean said.

He said the river out here has always ebbed, flowed and even flooded due to an array of water sources and weather patterns, but the current low flow is related to how it’s managed.

“What you have to understand about the Rio Grande,” he said, “is that because it’s a binational river, it’s managed jointly between the U.S. and Mexico.”

Most of the water in the Rio Grande in the Big Bend comes from Mexico. Climate change is part of the problem, but Mexico is also releasing less water across the border, despite treaty obigations.

For the tourism industry in Big Bend, the bone-dry river is a marketing problem.

“Tourism, without a shadow of a doubt, is the economic driver for Far West Texas,” said Robert Alvarez, director of a tourism office in Brewster County.

River Guide Charlie Angell at the edge of the Rio Grande.
Zoe Kurland / Marfa Public Radio

In Brewster County, you won’t find any big-box stores or major corporations. The oil and gas industry is a couple of hundred miles north. In the absence of those kinds of economic players, tourism is huge, and when visitors can’t get on the river, they’re bummed.

So Alvarez and the tourism office have shifted the pitch. At the moment, they’re not actually promoting the Rio Grande in the Big Bend. There are still some pictures of the river in promotional materials, but you won’t see people in boats on the water:

“We’re changing it to where we’re showing them zip lining or hiking,” said Alvarez.

Local outfitters, like Charlie Angell, are leaning into these kinds of alternatives too. “I feel like in my lifetime, the Rio Grande in this area will no longer be viable for river trips,” he said.

His company now offers hikes, bike tours and birding.

Some of Texas’ congressional representatives are in talks about cutting aid to Mexico as disputes over water supplies to the Rio Grande continue — something that could mean more future water flows into the river. But for now, Angell is preparing for a time when an experience on the water won’t be part of his business.

“I’m just gonna get old and cranky as time goes on and just do driving tours and wax poetic about how the river used to be,” he said.

This story first appeared on American Public Media’s Marketplace.

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