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]