Report chronicles troubled Colorado River basin
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Zak Podmore had heard and read about the fact that the river he grew up on runs dry before it reaches the Pacific Ocean.
But it wasn’t until the recent Colorado College graduate embarked on a four-month-long research trip this past October through January, along with fellow CC grad Will Stauffer-Norris, that Podmore witnessed the phenomenon with his own eyes.
“Where there used to be 3,000 square miles of wetlands in the Colorado River delta, there is now less than 10 percent remaining,” Podmore described.
“It’s so hard to imagine when you look at the river as it passes through Glenwood Springs that it just dries up at the Mexico border,” he said.
Podmore and Stauffer-Norris, both 23, paddled their kayaks 1,700 miles from the Colorado River Basin headwaters on the Green River to the Gulf of California.
Their journey began high in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, where the headwaters of the Green River form.
From there, they hiked, then eventually began paddling down the river, through deep, picturesque canyons and across massive man-made reservoirs into southern California.
In Mexico, the river turns into a complicated series of canals. Then, much of the final stages of the trek involved hiking through desert farmlands, mud flats and dried-up river beds before they finally reached the beach on the Sea of Cortez.
“No hay agua en El Rio Colorado.” Those were the words of a Mexican fisherman they encountered one day late in the journey as they pulled their kayaks from one of the canals. “There’s no water in the Colorado River.”
Their story is documented in the latest Colorado College State of the Rockies Report Card, “Source to Sea.”
The report was formally released at last week’s State of the Rockies Conference, titled “The Colorado River Basin: Agenda for Use, Restoration and Sustainability for the Next Generation.”
Podmore and Stauffer-Norris are now among the growing number of voices in the conversation about the risks that confront the overburdened Colorado River system.
Podmore learned at a young age while growing up in Glenwood Springs to love and respect the rivers that originate in the high reaches of the Rocky Mountains.
Some of his earliest memories are of river trips on the Colorado, Green, San Juan and Dolores rivers with his parents, Mike and Ruth Podmore, both teachers in Glenwood Springs.
“My parents used to have a rafting company before I was born, so I think I was 1 when they took me on my first river trip,” Zak Podmore said. “We did a big river trip every summer, exploring different rivers in Colorado and Utah.”
His winters were spent skiing on the snow that eventually becomes the water that flows into the Colorado River system.
A 2006 graduate of Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, his passion then took him on wilderness river adventures in Canada, Mexico and Ecuador.
It was on an 18-day Ritt Kellogg Fund trip on the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories that Podmore met Stauffer-Norris.
When Podmore invited Stauffer-Norris on a long-ago awarded Grand Canyon river permit trip along with some other friends, Stauffer-Norris had another idea.
“Will suggested we paddle the whole river,” Podmore said. “A year of convincing later, the expedition was born.”
When one of their professors at Colorado College learned of their plans, he recruited them to be field researchers for the annual State of the Rockies project.
The pair both graduated from CC last spring, Podmore with a degree in philosophy, and Stauffer-Norris with an environmental science degree. After graduation, they began planning their trip.
Rather than scientific research, their objective was to provide a personal narrative, plus video and photo documentation, of their journey and what they observed along the way.
Their 45-minute film documentary was produced by Stauffer-Norris; their story is told in the “Source to Sea” report card authored by Podmore.
The report card can be found on the State of the Rockies website, www2.coloradocollege.edu/stateoftherockies. They also maintained a blog during the journey at coloradosourcetosea.coloradocollege.edu/.
Podmore and Stauffer-Norris had been down sections of the Colorado River many times. So, partly for historical reasons, they chose to begin their journey on the Green River.
“Before 1921, the Colorado River officially began where it joins the Green in what is now Canyonlands National Park,” Podmore explains in the report card.
What’s today the Colorado River was then known as the Grand River.
“Despite the fact that the Green River is about 250 miles longer than the Grand, it was the Grand that was renamed the Colorado for political reasons,” he wrote.
The infamous 1922 Colorado River Compact would divvy up the flow of the river between eight southwestern states and Mexico, setting up the dilemma that’s playing out today.
Experts now predict that by the year 2050 there will not be enough water in the river to meet the needs of the communities that depend on it.
The timing of their trip during some of the coldest months of the year was also unique, but was necessary due to Podmore’s Grand Canyon permit launch date of Nov. 29, 2011.
“That actually made it easier to get some of the other permits farther upstream,” he said. “And, there were fewer people on the rivers, so it was more of a wilderness experience.”
For about two-thirds of the trip, Podmore and Stauffer-Norris were by themselves for the most part. The only exceptions were at the very beginning, when a small group of fellow CC students joined them, and during the Grand Canyon run, when they had a full crew and raft support.
Along the way, they navigated Flaming Gorge Reservoir, the centerpiece of a proposed new controversial pipeline that would divert even more Colorado Basin water to the Front Range of Colorado.
Beyond that are Lake Powell and Lake Mead, two of the largest man-made lakes in the world, and a series of reservoirs along the southern California and Arizona border that serve the major population centers in that region.
“The lower river just gets more interesting,” Stauffer-Norris said in a phone interview along with Podmore this past week. “Usually rivers get bigger and bigger as you go farther downstream. But the Colorado just keeps getting smaller.
“This big river turns into a creek, then just dries up in the original riverbed,” he said. “It’s pretty eye-opening to see that first-hand.”
Adds Podmore, “You go from some of the best fly fishing in the world in Wyoming, through the gas drilling and industrial areas, then into scenic wilderness canyons and these massive lakes.”
“To see the river the whole way and how it’s used in different ways really makes you appreciate it,” he said.
“It was pretty darn cold for the first part of the trip,” Podmore said of some of the logistical challenges along the way. “Our shoes would be frozen every morning, and our wetsuits would get ice on them as soon as the sun went behind the ridge.”
Support crews, including family members, kept them stocked with food at various points along the way.
“Food really wasn’t a problem, because we had so many people lined up to meet us along the way,” Podmore said. “We never had to carry more than 10 days worth of food with us.”
Thanksgiving for the pair was spent on the shores of Lake Powell eating turkey jerky and instant mashed potatoes.
A few weeks after their float through the Grand Canyon, family members joined them for Christmas Eve on Lake Mead outside Las Vegas.
And then New Year’s Eve was spent on the strip in Las Vegas. It was there that one of the biggest exclamation points to their journey and its ultimate purpose was made.
“We heard that there would be an estimated 500,000 people on the Vegas strip for New Year’s Eve,” Podmore writes in the report card.
“The following afternoon, Will and I stashed our kayaks next to the river and hiked out to see the city where some of the water was going. We spent the next 24 hours wading through the overflowing streets of Vegas, staring into bubbling fountains, and gazing out on rows of palm trees and lawns.
“All these sights, which would have seemed so normal had we arrived onto the streets by car, felt dreadfully out of place in the middle of a landscape that receives about four inches of rain a year.”
In addition to the film documentary about their trip and the State of the Rockies report, Podmore and Stauffer-Norris are also now helping with a Sonoran Institute project to secure a small but significant flow of water to restore the ecologically crucial Colorado River delta in northern Mexico.
Another research trip is in the works for this summer that will take Podmore, Stauffer-Norris and others down the Colorado River from Rocky Mountain National Park to Lake Powell. Along the way, they will be taking water quality samples and working to bring awareness to the river and the threats it faces.
“We will be planning events along the way to spread the word,” Podmore said, looking forward to a stop in Glenwood Springs to share his experiences.
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