Two locals follow the Colorado River, from beginning to end
Ryan Summerlin October 22, 2010
When Pete McBride was growing up on his family’s cattle ranch in Old Snowmass in the 1980s, helping to irrigate pastures and fields, he became infatuated with water.
He dwelled on how long it would take the water from the streams that were the lifeblood of the ranch to reach the mighty Colorado River and, ultimately, the sea.
Fast forward a couple of decades: Carbondale resident Jonathan Waterman had similar thoughts in spring 2008 as he spread his recently departed mother’s ashes into the headwaters of the Colorado River. He wondered how far down-river his mom would travel on her symbolic final journey.
McBride, 39, an award-winning photographer with numerous assignments for National Geographic publications under his belt, and Waterman, 54, a conservationist with nine books to his credit, embarked on epic adventures throughout 2008 and into 2009 – some together but most independently – to learn more about the West’s iconic river as it winds down to the Sea of Cortez.
The results are two powerful books, Waterman’s “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” and their collaboration on a picture book featuring stunning photographs by McBride, most of them taken from an airplane high above the river corridor. “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict” is due out in November. The coffee-table style hardback features 154 pages of photos, mostly by McBride, and text by Waterman.
In one sense, the books are tragedies. Waterman knew that the river no longer reaches the Gulf of California because it is over-allocated to irrigate bluegrass lawns in cities and suburbs, make crops bloom throughout the parched Southwest and feed growing industries like mining and natural gas extraction.
Seven states divvy up the Colorado River’s water based on an agreement forged in 1922, but there is a fatal flaw in the Colorado River Compact, Waterman said. Water projections were based on inflated numbers from “wet” years that were an anomaly. Instead of producing 17.5 million acre feet on an annual basis, recent modeling shows the river really produces about 14.7 million acre feet annually.
“We gave away a lot more river than exists,” Waterman said.
That’s a problem for a river and major tributaries that provide a lifeline for 30 million people. It’s a bigger problem when another 10 million people are expected to depend on the river within another decade.
But “Running Dry” isn’t an environmental screed. Waterman used various kayaks, rafts and other watercraft to make his way down the 1,450 mile river and he takes readers with him – showing what he saw and experienced, rather than just telling us about it. It’s part action-adventure entertainment, part educational.
“Nobody had looked at the river from stem to stern,” he said.
Meanwhile, McBride got the idea of checking out the Colorado River from the window of an airplane. Even before McBride talked to his friend Waterman about his project, McBride was flying the river corridor when he could, taking pictures from the bird’s eye view. He had examined two of the great rivers of the world, the Nile and Amazon, on previous assignments and now wanted to examine the river in his back yard.
“It’s local,” he explained. “I grew up on it, near it, using its water.”
He flew the river with his dad, John McBride, and with good friend Bruce Gordon, who flies to promote conservation causes. McBride hitched rides in a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter looking for drug runners and with a crop duster flying six inches off the ground in the southern California’s Salton Sea area.
“Getting above things, that perspective, highlights the human footprint,” he said.
McBride compiled roughly 15,000 still images of the river corridor as well as video over a 2 1/2 year period.
Waterman didn’t make the trip down the river in one shot. He occasionally took a break, returned home to his family, then resumed where he left off after recharging.
One of his scariest moments came when he flipped his kayak while negotiating what he felt was a fairly innocuous rapid near the Colorado-Utah border. The experience reminded him that the river is still a powerful force, regardless of how much it is dammed, diverted and controlled.
“I had to swim for my life a couple of times,” he said. “You need some humility whipped into you.”
While chronicling his adventures, he mixes in the grief he feels over his mother’s death and the remorse over not forging a better relationship while she was alive. He also gives a glimpse into the strong environmental ethic that he, his wife and their two young sons follow on their property in Missouri Heights, not far from Carbondale.
Waterman said he wanted the book to have “emotional resonance” with readers, so he exposed personal details of his family history, like his parents’ painful divorce and his stunted relationship with his mom. He included his own family in Carbondale to try to more powerfully demonstrate why people should care about what’s happening to the Colorado River.
Waterman is blunt with his assessment – he sees a “coming train wreck” if we continue on our current course.
On the surface, the river looks fine in many regards. There are stretches that still look wild. The Colorado River reveals its full splendor while carving deep gorges in Utah’s soaring red sandstone cliffs or tumbling down Gore Canyon in Colorado’s mountains.
“It’s when you dig under the skin a bit you find the challenges,” Waterman said. He unabashedly exposed the problems he witnessed and researched. And because of it, he has made enemies of many people operating the water diversions along the river and the “water buffaloes” who want more dams and diversions.
Waterman’s journey started at the headwaters of the river in spring 2008, when ample snowmelt for the first time in years created a narrow but fast-moving stream. McBride joined him for a short stretch early in the journey and disaster nearly struck when the two men were nearly clothes-lined by one of numerous fences that ranchers have erected across the river. In “Running Dry,” Waterman advocates for greater access for river runners, and airs the frustration he experienced having to portage around fences and trespass across private property related to diversions.
Animosity hangs in the air as the good-natured Waterman floats solo through a small cluster of anglers who feel boaters shouldn’t intrude. An angry landowner chases Waterman, insisting he had the right to close “his” stretch of river and lease it out for exclusive fishing outings.
Waterman became accustomed to being the proverbial fish out of water while floating several sections of the river. Kayakers aren’t so welcome in power-boat meccas like Lake Powell, Lake Mead and Lake Havasu.
“Running Dry” juxtaposes the differences that Waterman found between Lake Powell (crowds, graffiti on the soaring sandstone cliffs, toilet paper and other litter on the banks) and other areas like Westwater on the Colorado-Utah border, where man’s touch has been lighter.
Waterman vilifies dams for forcing plants, fish and wildlife to adapt after they evolved to live in and along the river for millions of years. The cold water from reservoir bottoms that gets released through the dams endangers native fish like the humpback chub. The constrained flow, which suppresses natural cycles, has put an end to beneficial, scouring floods in spring, raising hell with flora and fauna.
McBride said he was aware of some of the issues facing the Colorado River but the experience of flying over it and floating parts of it, including the Grand Canyon twice, taught him a lot.
“I had no idea how many straws are in the drink, so to speak,” he said. Roughly 40 percent of the headwaters of the river get diverted to Denver and other parts of the Front Range, McBride said. In one sense, the river is robbed of a large share of the water that once allowed it to roar to life and carve a route across the Colorado Plateau.
Witnessing what happens to the river on its journey to the sea steeled McBride’s resolve to build awareness about the river’s plight.
“The reality is we live in a dry world and we’re not looking at it sustainably,” he said. “We’re constantly looking for more supply.”
Regardless of how a person feels about the dams and diversion infrastructure, he said, many of them are true engineering marvels. One of his aerial shots demonstrates the mass of Hoover Dam, which Waterman wrote required enough cement to pave a two-lane highway from coast to coast. But the dam also looks insignificant, even temporary, in its raw, rocky natural setting.
Waterman found many reasons for despair, but also hope.
“For every dying or compromised zone, another part of the river is protected by government parks, recreation areas, and refuges,” he wrote in “Running Dry,” after completing about three-fourths of the journey. “From Rocky Mountain National Park to the alfalfa-furred headwaters; from BLM acreage to the land of industrial oil and gas. From Canyonlands into Lake Powell and freed once again by the Grand Canyon before dropping into Lake Mead. From the Black Canyon Wilderness Area into Lake Mohave, into the protected waters of the Havasu Wildlife Refuge.”
As Waterman worked his way downstream – past the reservoirs that so effectively impound and tame the river – he found that so much of the water was being sucked away to Southern California and Arizona that the Colorado River could no longer be called mighty. Below Hoover Dam, he said, the river is essentially “a big irrigation ditch.”
Just before the river reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, diversions whisk off the majority of what remains to thirsty California agri-businesses.
Mexico receives 1.5 million acre feet of water per year, but that gets diverted for agricultural and domestic use. When Waterman and McBride hooked up in late 2008, they were surprised to find water, or at least liquid, flowing south of the border – barely. Eventually, however, the trickle stops against a dam of tamarisk trees and the pair find themselves stuck in a “fetid ooze.”
“We’re only partly concerned about our health,” Waterman wrote in “Running Dry.” “Mostly we are dismayed, because we know the river as a force of nature near our homes and throughout its roaring canyons. Upstream, the boiling river has flipped us out of boats; south of the border, it has congealed to malodorous gravy.”
Waterman’s feet became infected to the point he couldn’t walk after negotiating the mud surrounding the gravy. He and McBride were forced to abort the last leg of the trip. They returned in January 2009 to thoroughly explore the Colorado River’s former delta.
McBride finds the answer to his boyhood question of how long it took water from his ranch to reach the sea.
“Sadly,” he said, “the answer is it takes forever, at the moment.”
Waterman spent a year completing research and writing his book after the journey. The book was released in May and now Waterman is on the road nearly non-stop, giving slide shows on his findings. He anticipates 50 lectures in the next year “easily.”
“If you really want to effect change as a writer, you have to do more than write a book,” he said.
Waterman believes the saga of the Colorado River should strike a special chord with residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. While a significant amount of the headwaters of the Roaring Fork and Fryingpan rivers are diverted already, Waterman believes they will be tapped to a greater degree as the Front Range grows.
“I want everyone in this valley to know the [Colorado] river doesn’t flow to the sea and I want to challenge them to learn why,” he said.
In the bigger picture, he hopes to inspire people who depend on the Colorado River or are concerned about its fate to get involved in river-related decisions.
The book, he said, “is very much a call to action, but you can’t have a call to action without hope.
“I’m not a Pollyanna,” Waterman said. “I found continual reasons for hope. It’s still worth trying to save.”
One important step, Waterman said, is to force decision-making about use of the river into the light. Many if not most meetings on water use are made by bureaucrats and elected officials in backrooms, out of sight and earshot of the public.
Another important step, he added, is for western Colorado residents to weigh in on regulations regarding oil shale development. The extraction process is extremely water intensive, and the big oil companies have acquired enough water rights on the Yampa and Upper Colorado that additional allocations for other uses might be impossible.
“There’s not much room to take more,” Waterman said.
In addition, Waterman contends that oil shale development on a massive scale would transform western Colorado from predominantly agricultural uses to industrial.
He believes the growing population, gas development and drought related to climate change, combined with the fact that the amount of water in the river was over-estimated in the 1920s, will force drastic changes in how the river is managed in his lifetime. Getting to that point might not be pretty.
“My skepticism is it might have to come to a crisis to effect change,” he said.
McBride concurs. People tend to put off action on an unpleasant problem as long as they can. Over-allocation of the Colorado River won’t be addressed until people in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas turn their taps on and nothing happens, he said.
McBride hopes to inspire Westerners to take action before it comes to that.
“I actually thought about that a lot – why do we care if the river makes it to the sea?” McBride asked. “It’s like having a tree that’s just a stump.”
While writing the book “Running Dry,” Carbondale author Jonathan Waterman mixed stories of his personal adventures paddling the Colorado River with a flood of facts that demonstrate how imperiled it is from over-allocation. Here are some of his eye-catching points.
• 30 million people depend on the Colorado River and its tributaries for their water. The population is projected to grow another 10 million in the next decade. The river’s supply will be hard-pressed to keep pace with that growth.
• The 1922 Colorado River Compact that divvied up use of the river’s water by seven western states was based on assumption that the river provides 17.5 million acre feet in the average year. Recent modeling shows it averages closer to 14.5 million acre feet.
• The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation calculates that the river could run short of water 58 to 73 percent of the time by the year 2050.
• Roughly one-fifth of the 1,450 miles of the river is “impounded” by dams. One of the grandest and most controversial dams, the Glen Canyon Dam, buried more than 2,000 Native American sites when it was commissioned starting in 1963.
• Las Vegas is known for gambling, but its casinos account for only 7 percent of the city’s water consumption. Residential uses account for half, and 70 percent of the water used by residences is for landscaping.
• One acre of Kentucky bluegrass requires 1,007,352 gallons of water per season.
• While most of the water tapped from the river goes to agriculture, industry’s needs loom large. There are 395 uranium claims along the river corridor and 800 pending new claims. If oil shale extraction takes off in western Colorado, the big oil companies with holdings have accumulated water rights that equal the current yearly allocation for the four states in the Upper Basin – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming. In other words, oil shale production will trump and potentially suck down the remaining water.
• The Colorado River last reached the Sea of Cortez in 1998.
– Scott Condon