Chasing water in the desert: the great Rio Grande “flood” of 2013

In the midst of a very unusual storm (see my newspaper explanation of its unusualness here), I’ve spent much of the last 24 hours watching a big slug of water make its way down the Rio Grande Valley in which Albuquerque sits. A source yesterday afternoon pointed me to the readings on the USGS San Felipe gauge, which had popped up over 9,000 cubic feet per second. For this spot on this river, upstream from Albuquerque, that is a lot of water. We quickly committed journalism, the water managers rallied their modelers and calculated estimated peak flows and arrival times, the municipal authorities went into hyperdrive. And then we waited.

This was not a “wall of water” type of flow, but as modeled, it was likely to be up near the largest flow we’ve had in Albuquerque in the post-dam era. So we staked out the bridges, as did a hoard¬†horde of residents, to watch our briefly big river roll past. (My colleague Rob Browman illustrated this part nicely.)

After work, Lissa and I went out in the pitch dark so she could see it, and then I spent today following the pig in the python downstream. It’s a slow-moving, easy-to-track thing: midnight at Albuquerque’s Central Avenue bridge, noon today at Los Lunas south of here, rising as I write this at Bosque, the gauge in the far southern end of Valencia County.

The thing that was hard to capture was the quiet nature of the event. We think of “floods” as tempestuous, but as I wrote this morning, one of the reasons the flow was less than expected is the way the river spread gently into the woods alongside its main channel. Upstream, the river has been incising into its old flood plain, so the spreading is only possible in places where human intervention, in the form of habitat restoration, has created low areas, swales and side channels for endangered critters. To the south, the river made it out of its banks on its own.

I am not a photojournalist, but I’m trying to learn how to take pictures that tell stories. Here’s one attempt, a cottonwood in a normally dry bosque forest with a soft blanket of water at its feet:

Quiet water in the cottonwood bosque, John Fleck, 9/14/2013

Quiet water in the cottonwood bosque, John Fleck, 9/14/2013


  1. That was a nice piece John. We had heard you got a lot of water as well, nice to read the river ran through it.



  2. David – Thanks. I’ve always felt as though this blog thing, without editors, is a bit like Frankie Avalon performing without Anette.

  3. I make wine, so the confusion of a palate (taste) and a palette (the color thing) and a pallet (among other things, the wood thing a forklift picks up) will trip up either Phil or Don Everly without discrimination.

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