The Mighty Colorado: Trickling Down to Nothing
Floodwaters and winds wreak havoc on the narrow ravines and shallow-rooted forests of Vermont and New York; wildfires torch the desiccated Texas plains that have gone 300 straight days without rainfall; buckets pour down on the Gulf Coast once again, drowning ecosystems, hopes and dreams; and the great rivers of the American West are running dry. Sounds downright Biblical in its apocalyptic-ness, doesn’t it? Blame whomever you like, from heaven to hell to politicians to the Army Corps of Engineers to mall developers, but this is the reality of our environment in the first decade of the 21st century.
Among all that doom and gloom, who would have predicted that those big American rivers—especially the granddaddy of them all, the Colorado River—would today be so imperiled. Yet tapped for the past 80 years for farms, drinking water, urban growth, suburban sprawl and recreation by a human population of more than 25 million, the Colorado currently no longer even reaches the sea. The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.
Thanks to the work of two Colorado-based journalists, writer and adventurer Jon Waterman and photographer Pete McBride, the Colorado’s near-demise and its future were the subject of a seven-month-long descent and new accounts in a pair of books, photos and a short film.
In June 2008 Waterman—an experienced wilderness guide, park ranger and writer—set out to paddle the length of the Colorado, from its headwaters to south of the Mexican border; McBride joined him for parts of the descent and spent months capturing powerful photographs of its length from a small plane (often piloted by his father John), often from just a couple hundred feet above.
The river’s complex history of dams and diversions, the construction of massive canals to further drain it down, and its natural power and beauty all lend drama to their modern-day stories. But it is the anecdote about where the river runs dry that is the most powerful of all.
The conclusion of the descent in January 2009, in Waterman’s words, (from an essay for the Patagonia company’s fall catalog), paints the harsh reality: “Two miles into Mexico, my hopes of a complete 1,450-mile descent ended in a foamy pond of congealed fertilizers, distillate of countless American lawns and 3.4 million thirsty farm acres. I splashed out in bare feet, worried that our most iconic white water river would make me physically ill. (Pete) stayed clean by climbing out through the tamarisk trees. We tried to wipe the river shit off our pack rafts with tamarisk fronds, cursing the system that has diminished the Mighty Colorado to a stinking cesspool.”
“The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.”
What happened? “Engineered to death” is Waterman’s conclusion, detailed in his book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River: “…more than 100 dams and 1,000 miles of canals divert its water to most every farm, industry and city within a 250-mile radius of the river. Each year, seven western states and northern Mexico take 16.5 million acre-feet (enough water to supply 33 million American households) of river water. Amid the 12th year of drought in the Southwest, climate models show that conditions will continue to dry the snowmelt-fed river. Add explosive population growth, increasing the demand for water, and the river’s future becomes a ticking time bomb.”
McBride’s dramatic book of photos and film (Chasing Water) are bringing the river’s sickness to an ever-bigger audience across the West. An exhibit of words and pictures—“The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict”—is currently on display at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Having grown up on a cattle ranch near Aspen, McBride admits to having taken the river’s abundance for granted; now he’s an advocate for its continued protection, “alarmed” by what he’s seen.
Like most of our environmental messes, parts of this one are reparable. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute is leading an effort to save what remains of the Colorado River delta and has specific steps for how individuals can help. Cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. would be a big help and is being encouraged by the International Boundary & Water Commission. Patagonia’s yearlong “Our Common Waters” campaign points to a handful of organizations working on water-related clean-up projects.
For the full story, check out Waterman’s book-length account and the pair’s book of photo-and-text.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)