Peter McBride: Cuba, Bhutan and the mightly Colorado at Carbondale’s 5Point
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – Peter McBride is featured in three slots at the 5Point Film Festival this weekend. His “Rhumba Sunday,” which shows Friday, is a four-minute film which McBride calls “a fun, visual kaleidoscope” about the tradition of weekly musical gatherings around Havana, Cuba. The film is made from footage McBride shot over five visits to Cuba, and dates back to the pre-high definition age. “Escaping the Wheel: Bhutan’s Snowman Trek” is scheduled for the 7 p.m. program on Saturday, May 1. McBride calls the seven-minute film a “visual postcard of the Snowman Trek” – a 230-mile hike in the kingdom of Bhutan that crosses 12 mountain passes above 16,000 feet. “Escaping the Wheel,” which aired last year on National Geographic TV, is “a window into one of the last realms of Tibetan Buddhism,” McBride said, “a place where all the peaks and lakes are sacred. You’re not allowed to climb the mountains; you’re not supposed to swim in the lakes.”
And then there is the Sunday, May 2 program, titled “Colorado River: Snow to Sea.” The multi-media event, comprising a film, slide show and a talk, has been slotted for 30 minutes. The presentation is part of a bigger project that McBride has been working on for two years – a coffee-table picture book titled “The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict” that is scheduled for publication this summer.
The fact that the Colorado River program has gotten so much of McBride’s attention, and is given so much room at the festival, is a product of where McBride comes from, and the depth of his passion on the subject of the Colorado – and water in the West in general. McBride was raised in Old Snowmass, on the Lost Marbles Ranch, and he remembers long hours spent irrigating the land, and thinking about the water he used.
“I was always curious, thinking how long would it take for that water to reach the sea? How long to get to Snowmass Creek, into the Roaring Fork, to the Colorado, into the Sea of Cortez?” McBride, who lives in Basalt, and works as a photojournalist, said.
When McBride was a child, there was a definite answer to that question, even though it might have been difficult to find it. The water that flowed from the Roaring Fork to the Colorado actually did make it to the sea. The answer now is simpler: Water running in the Colorado never makes it to the sea; the river fizzles out miles before reaching its historic delta in northern Mexico, just south of where Arizona borders California. It has been this way since 1998, when the accumulated effects of drought and allocation – over-allocation in McBride’s view – shortened the river’s course.
“The answer, now, is never,” McBride said of when the Colorado empties into the sea. “Not unless we change our practices.”
McBride holds out some hope that his Colorado River project – including the book, which he made with a Carbondale journalist with the apt name of Jon Waterman – has some effect on those practices. If nothing else, he expects that anyone who opens the book will recognize that the Colorado does, in fact, peter out in the Sonoran Desert. Mere knowledge of that fact is a good enough starting point.
“I’m amazed at the number of people, Westerners, even those who live on the river, who don’t know it dries up,” McBride, a member of the Basalt town council, said. “So I want people to have a visual map to create better awareness. Not only of the river, but how we look at water. In an ideal world, maybe that will lead to action.”
To gain people’s attention, McBride offers an uncommon look at the Colorado: 70 percent of his photos in “The Colorado River” are aerial shots.
“The aerial perspective can be so powerful,” he said. “It makes us aware of where humans have been, and where they have not been. And where water has been, and where it has not been.”
When McBride started thinking about documenting the Colorado River, two and a half years ago, he was thinking small-picture. His father, John, is a bush pilot, and he and Peter talked about making some aerial photographs of the river. But around that time, McBride heard that Waterman was planning his own project for the National Geographic Society, a narrative book titled “Running Dry,” for which he would run the Colorado from the headwaters, in Rocky Mountain National Park, to the point where it stopped dead. McBride was interested in doing a project closer to home, and struck up a collaboration with Waterman.
Once McBride got started on the Colorado, he couldn’t avoid the full-body plunge into the subject of water in the West. Projects like the films he made in Bhutan and Cuba were relatively easy compared to working in his own backyard.
“It makes it harder, to be honest. Because it’s closer to your heart. It can be challenging to step back and document it,” he said. “But you want to make people aware in your own neighborhood. So it’s been a longer project. I’ve put a lot more sweat into this, gotten a lot of headaches.”
Many of those headaches came not from doing the work, but from what he learned about the subject. The downfall of the river can be traced back to the Colorado River Compact, a 1922 agreement that divvied up water rights between seven Western states. The document was based on an annual flow of nearly 17 million acre feet of water, a figure, it is widely agreed, was inaccurate at the time, and didn’t account for the drier conditions that became a reality in future decades. It’s now estimated that the annual flow is around 14 million acre feet.
“There are too many straws in the drinking glass,” McBride said. To illustrate, he brings up a vivid comparison: A century or so ago, travelers going from the Sonoran desert to San Francisco would take a steamship from Yuma, Arizona to the Sea of Cortez, 50 miles south, then around the Baja California and north through the Pacific Ocean – utilizing what once was the largest estuary in North America.
Such a route is now impossible. The Colorado River Delta, said McBride, “is now dry, parched and barren as you can imagine. It’s cracked earth.”
McBride believes, however, that the situation is reversible. It will take a lot of money, a lot of behavioral change in the way we use water. And it will take a lot of education and awareness about what shape the Colorado is in. But the tide may be starting to turn. The city of Phoenix, which sucked resources out of its water table to feed growth, has now begun buying up water rights and storing water for the day when the Colorado doesn’t provide them as it has in the past. “They realize their future,” McBride said.
“Thirty million people depend on the Colorado River,” he continued. “And it’s not us-or-them – it’s everybody in the same boat. We all need to use our water sustainably.”
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