Here's a quick run-down of the issues confronting anyone wanting to explore America's 4th longest and most underutilized river.
The right to paddle the Rio Grande is enshrined in Article VII of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ("said boundary shall be free and common to the vessels and citizens of both countries"). In other words, citizens of both countries have full rights to use the entire width of the river. As a boater, you are not required to observe an imaginary line down the middle of the channel. Mexican immigration couldn't care less whether you enter their country informally. But if you do, U.S. Customs requires you to return through an official port of entry. You've been informed. Now you're on your honor.
With what's in the news, it's no surprise that security issues come to people's minds when considering a paddle trip on the Rio Grande. And while Mexico's U.S.-sponsored war on the drug cartels has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths in the last four years, Mexico -- at least compared to other Latin American countries -- is relatively safe. The rate of violent crime in Mexico is lower than any of its Central American neighbors (the perennial gringo haven of Costa Rica included). And U.S. border cities including Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo and El Paso are among the safest in the country.
(USA Today Story)
But how about the river that separates the two countries? The Lower Rio Grande might be the world's most closely watched river. Border Patrol agents monitor it by air, land and sea, and use a sophisticated array of remote surveillance equipment to cover where they can't go. River outfitters in the Laredo/Nvo. Laredo and McAllen/Reynosa stretches have logged over 3,000 incident-free customer days since beginning operations in 2007. Perhaps it's because of the border patrol presence. Perhaps it's because most illegal activity occurs at night. But when I see people on the river they are generally U.S. Border Patrol or Mexican fishermen. In both cases, we smile and paddle on.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Paddle Trail is being planned for the Laredo area. The informational kiosk there will include the suggestion that paddlers call the local Border Patrol sector and advise their Public Information Officer that you're entering the river. Call them again when you exit. (Though they'll probably be there when you pull out; chances are they've been watching you all along).
In the Eagle Pass area, the Border Patrol number to advise them of your plans on the river is: 830-758-4000. In the Laredo Sector, the number to call is: 956-764-3800
The Rio Grande's historically bad water quality began to improve after 1993 and passage of the North American Free Trade Act. Environmentalists wouldn't abide by NAFTA until side body agencies to address the impacts of all the anticipated development were created. BECC (the Border Environment Cooperation Commission), based in Juarez, and NADBank (the North American Development Bank), based in San Antonio, design and finance environmental infrastructure for the Border. Joint U.S. - Mexican financing has built billions of dollars of wastewater infrastructure in virtually every city along the Rio Grande. Raw sewage discharges have been reduced dramatically. Hot spots remain at some of the larger cities (Nuevo Laredo most notably), but the vast majority of the Rio Grande is bacteriologically safe for full contact sports. On my recent trip between Eagle Pass and Laredo we used no filters or chemicals but simply raised a pot of river water to a boil for cooking and drinking.
Ah, now we've found a challenge. But isn't it always with Texas rivers? Access to the Rio Grande is as limited as it is in any state where nearly all land is in private hands. If you're up for a 4-day float though, no problem. Simply put in at the Lucky Eagle casino in Eagle Pass. The easiest takeout is at the Colombia Bridge, about 20 miles upstream from Laredo. To get to the water exit into the parking lot just before the bridge and watch for a dirt road on your right. It will take you about 1/2 mile down to a gate that protects a city water intake. If you're up for another day's paddling, it's 24 miles to the World Trade Bridge, and 33 miles to Laredo's Bridge #1, Dos Laredos Park and a ramp that Border Patrol uses for their air boats.
Easiest way to see for yourself
Still got your doubts? Want to stick your toe in the water before committing to a four-day run? The City of Laredo is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to designate a 4-mile long Paddle Trail beginning at the city's Father McNaboe Park off of Mines Road. Turn for the river at Rancho Viejo and follow it to the end. You'll find a staircase already built. You can leave a car there, and another 4 miles south at Markley Lane. Border Patrol cruise both places constantly. Your things are safe.
Big River Outfitters based in Laredo can provide information, rentals or assistance with drivearounds. Call 956-236-4985, or visit their website at Big River Outfitters for more information.