There’s no evidence that John Wesley Powell, the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, ever made it to this stretch of the Rio Grande back in the winter of 1888-89, when he dispatched a crew to the site to establish the nation’s first river flow measurement site…
In the world of U.S. water management, this narrow strip where the river funnels between high bluffs is historic. Powell, most famous as the first person to survey the Grand Canyon, had realized that the ambitions of the continent’s European immigrants spreading west across North America were running up against an arid reality that Easterners failed to understand. Collective effort would be needed to confront the region’s aridity…Powell realized, and one of the first things the young nation needed was to measure how much water there was in the rivers.
Powell’s young agency, founded a decade before, dispatched a crew to Embudo in the winter of 1888-89 to try to figure out how to do that. The initial team that winter was led by Frederick Newell, who 13 years later became the founding director of the U.S. Reclamation Service, the predecessor to today’s U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and the agency responsible for the dams and irrigation systems that changed the western U.S. forever.
The first experiment, done on the Rio Grande at Embudo, just north of Española, was simple. They surveyed the channel’s depth and width, then built a simple pontoon boat and floated downstream. A bit of simple arithmetic – the river’s cross section multiplied by the speed of the flowing water – gave their first measurement of the volume of water flowing past Embudo.