Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict

A photographer and author teamed up to capture the geographical, environmental, and historical journey of the Colorado River in their photo-essay book, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict.  Peter McBride, a photographer from Colorado, visually documented his aerial expedition along 1,450 miles of the Colorado River, from its headwaters toward its delta.  Jonathan Waterman’s text, augmented by his past experiences as a wilderness guide, recounts his own personal travels paddling along the same length of river as well as the history surrounding the waters of the Colorado River.  The authors organized the book into three parts, corresponding to the sections of the river as it travels from the Rocky Mountains toward the Sea of Cortez.  Their combined intention was to capture the issues facing the river in a photographic record, showing both the beauty and sometimes eerie nature of the Colorado River Basin.  The aerial perspective, McBride explained, “shows where we as humans have been, how we connect to the earth, and how nature relates to itself.”

McBride began the book by recounting his childhood memories growing up on a Snowmass, Colorado farm near the headwaters of the Colorado River.  The introduction to the book, aptly entitled The River, provides a statistical overview of Colorado River, highlighting the more than one-hundred dams obstructing the river’s natural flow.  The Colorado River Basin drains 243,000 square miles, spanning seven states and two countries.  The river itself supports thirty species of native fish as well as fourteen coal and natural gas power plants, demonstrating the range of reliance on the continuous flow of water.

In Part I: The Mountains, the authors describe the beginning of their journey at the Colorado River’s headwaters near the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  This section documents the river geographically through the Upper Basin.  The river first flows south through Rocky Mountain National Park, then west through Cataract Canyon, where it crosses the border into Utah.  The river then winds through the Canyonlands near Moab and spills into Lake Powell.  This section also highlights threats to the Upper Basin ecosystem, including impacts of invasive tamarisk and pine beetle on native habitat.  A vast number of uranium claims along the Colorado River also pose another potential environmental threat.  However, Part I also depicts the many benefits of the river to humans.  Recreation activities, especially, sustain the region’s tourism-based economy, including rafting, floating, fishing, and wildlife watching.

Part II: Big Reservoirs, Grand Canyon next depicts the Colorado as it flows southwest from Lake Powell toward Lees Ferry.  The Colorado River Compact utilized Lees Ferry, a historic river crossing in northern Arizona, as the arbitrary divide between the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basins.  The authors’ journey continued on to Lake Mead, the vast reservoir storing water for downstream consumers in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico.  The Colorado River slowly travels through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead, then almost five-hundred miles west to the Hoover Dam.  The creation of Grand Canyon National Park in 1919 resulted in formal protection of the landscape.  Yet wildlife native to the Colorado continue to face threats to their survival.  For example, the humpback chub, a native fish species, adapted to hunt in the shallow, muddy, and warm waters of Little Colorado River.  However, deep water held behind the dams of the Lower Basin is colder and clearer which nonnative species prefer, such as trout, which compete with native species for limited food resources.

Part III: To the Delta documents the final leg of the authors’ journey of the Colorado River toward the sea.  This section maps the river’s flow below the Hoover Dam, through the Black Canyon in California south to Baja California, Mexico.  However, the river no longer ends at the delta in the Sea of Cortez, but runs dry about fifty miles north.  The river delta itself is 95% diminished.    A myriad of water diversions have caused the Colorado River to run dry in the Sonoran desert before it reaches the Sea of Cortez.  Agricultural irrigators in the region have diverted much of the river into canals, such as Coachella and All-American.  Much of the irrigation runoff in southern California flows into the Salton Sea, over two-hundred feet below sea level.  The Salton Sea is an important oasis in the desert, visited by over four-hundred bird species.  Yet the Sea’s water level is decreasing six inches each year as more river water flows to major cities, resulting in increased salinity levels which threaten the resident fish and birds that prey upon them.  This section summarizes these and other downriver ecological impacts of damming and diverting the river for human uses in southern California and northern Mexico.

McBride and Waterman depict their personal expedition along most of the Colorado River through colorful photographs and detailed maps that invoke in the reader both feelings of appreciation and concern for the Colorado River.  Waterman’s text skillfully integrates summaries of the natural history and geography of the Colorado River Basin with meaningful quotes.  His passages describe anthropogenic impacts to the surrounding ecosystems throughout modern history.  McBride captures the river from both the ground and aerial perspectives, providing the reader with beautiful natural images rarely seen.  The use of historical photos for comparison with current conditions visually demonstrates the environmental impacts of damming the river on the local landscape.  This photo-essay book is much more than a collection of pictures and would do well to complete any collection for a water enthusiast or one who simply enjoys the natural beauty of the Colorado River.

Peter McBride & Jonathan Waterman, The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict, Westcliffe Publishers, Colorado (2012); 160 pp; $27.95; ISBN 978-1-56579-646-1; soft cover.