The River: Chasing a Drop Down the Colorado

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Published on July 31st, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Peter McBride is an award winning photographer whose images were recently featured in Nature Conservancy magazine. See more of his photographs at petemcbride.com.

My father and I are flying a giant figure-eight pattern above Rocky Mountain National Park, just west of Longs Peak, at roughly 13,000 feet. Below us, a slight mist hovers above a sliver of water that meanders like a piece of loose yarn dropped on a green floor.

When the air speed indicator dips below 90 mph, I holler, “Opening!”

An icy blast crashes through the cockpit, and I twist in my seat to the right, steady my camera, and try to frame the headwaters of our local river, the Colorado.

Raised on a cattle ranch in central Colorado, I spent many hours as a child chasing water around our hay fields. Standing knee deep in muddy ditches, leaning on my shovel, I often tried to read the water’s future path.

I also pondered how long it would take that water—snowmelt originating in the 14,000-foot peaks shrouding the valley—to cross our fields, gurgle down creeks, merge with the mighty Colorado, and eventually make the 1,450-mile march across five states and northern Mexico before it terminated in the Sea of Cortez.

That innocent query inspired this quest, some twenty years later, to explore every nook of the river’s basin, most of it from a bird’s eye vantage point in the hope of offering some human perspective and awareness to an impossibly complicated issue.

The snowmelt that crosses our family ranch today has followed a path to and down the Colorado River for six million years, creating one of the largest desert estuaries in North America—a 3,000 square mile wetland just over what today is the Mexican border at the terminus.

But roughly 100 years ago, we started figuring out the power of irrigation and diversions, and in the effort to green the desert, we created a network of pipelines and canals that is nothing less than an engineering marvel. We allocated millions of acre-feet of water throughout seven Western states and pumped the river through tunnels, up hills and across miles of never-before-irrigated lands to fill pools, water lawns and produce crops.

The Colorado River, although not the longest or largest river in the United States (it is the seventh), is one of the most loved and litigated rivers in the world. No matter where you live in the U.S., you are in contact with Colorado River water. During winter months, the river’s water grows the entire lettuce and carrot crop for the U.S. Southwest cities like Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas depend on the river for much their water for drinking, lawns, fountains, and even some of the electrical power a web of hydro turbines produce. The bulk of the river flow (nearly 80%) sustains 3.5 million acres of agricultural lands across the southwest. In total, the economies and lifestyles of 35 million rely on this waterway.

But when a western community moans for more water to fill growth and developing thirsts, the Colorado River, somewhere, groans from another dehydrating straw. As a result, the river’s delta in Mexico is the alarming proof of such sucking sounds.  Engineering expertise combined with climate change and a ten-year drought has run the river dry some 100 miles short of its historically famed wild estuary once described as lush, verdant and teeming with jaguars. Today, not a single drop of the Colorado River, (including the record runoff of last summer) has reached the sea since 1998.

Who is to blame? Some argue the “law” of the river, called the Colorado Compact, enabled an over-allocation by miscalculating the Colorado’s flow. It did. But, frankly, all of us ask too much of the basin. We all need water, but the West and Colorado, need flowing rivers—not just for our economies, which depend on them, and our native habitat, but also for our unique identity and, perhaps, even for our soul.

Editor’s note: The Nature Conservancy works to restore and protect the Colorado River and its tributaries in six of the basin states and in Mexico. Realizing that a river facing multiple threats and demands across state and national lines requires a big-picture approach, the Conservancy created its Colorado River Program in 2008. The underlying goal of the program is to meet the needs of people without sacrificing the health of the Colorado River system, upon which the region depends. With 15 priority projects on the Colorado River and its tributaries, the Conservancy is uniquely poised to share and demonstrate knowledge gained through on-the-ground work. The Colorado River Program is partnering with other non-profit organizations, water users and policy makers to develop innovative ways of managing water and balancing freshwater habitat needs in water management decisions.

[Image: Confluence of Yampa (right) and Little Snake. Taken in October hanging out of the window of a Cessna 185. Lighthawk was piloting. Image source: Peter McBride]

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4 Responses to “The River: Chasing a Drop Down the Colorado”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love it

  2. Anthony St. John says:

    I have subscribed to Nature Conservancy for years so your ad in the newest Bloomberg Business Week really got my attention, especially since it was headed “Tear out this page and save it for your grandchildren” along with “Experts predict that within 100 years, natural lands and water resources will be scarce. — And the habitats that support all life could be lost forever.”

    I have infant and toddler granddaughters who greatly inspire me during my weekly babysitting shifts to leave a far better legacy than we are presently destroying.

    I highly recommend that it is time for another successful legacy document like Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring” to make the right things happen with the extreme urgency you keep documenting.

    I have a copy of Norman Myers 1990 “The GAIA Atlas of Future Worlds which should have resulted in the same success as “Silent Spring” but has instead been marginalized by special interests with the power of money to control far too many of our institutions that increasingly threaten long-term quality of life for future generations.

    Because of these reasons I strongly urge Nature Conservancy to join with all other conservation organizations around the world to create a worldwide people-to-people communications network to expedite production and implementation of environmental, social, political and economic solutions to protect long-term quality of life for humanity.

  3. Anthony St. John says:

    One very strong recommendation to make the environmental movement strong enough to save the planet and humanity was published in the 2007 Edge Annual Question by COREY S. POWELL, Senior Editor, Discover Magazine; Adjunct Professor, Science Journalism, NYU:

    Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope Benedict XVI or, er, Tom Cruise, who can get rid of all those “it”s in the previous sentences. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, like the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures.

    Surely there is a better way. Any suggestions?

    http://edge.org/q2007/q07_15.html

  4. Anthony St. John says:

    Too bad people really don’t care nearly enough about discussing these issues.

    So the latest drought – famine – pestilence cycle continues until another civilization is destroyed, even though we were the first civilization that had the scientific and technological ability to do prevent it.

    Hybrid fusion generation never had a chance, even though President Eisenhower warned us in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”
    http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm

    Edward Teller also told us in the 60s that fusion generation would be operational by the end of the 20th century, but the “power of money” killed any possibility.

    We keep proving that we are the most self-destructive civilization in history.

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