From the seat of a small jet plane I can place my hand against the window and parts of the Colorado River disappear.
I am with a pilot and a couple other college students dipping and turning at 10,000 feet. In four days we will traverse Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. We’ll touch down in each state and speak with different groups about their work and lives as they relate to the Colorado River.
It’s the most disputed water source on planet earth, and we want to know why.
I’m flying courtesy of Eco Flight, a non-profit based in Aspen, Colorado. The founder Bruce Gordan has flown all around the world. He’s so good a pilot, in fact, that I spotted him reading the newspaper at a casual 9,000 ft above the ground.
He spoke of seeing the landscape change drastically in a short period of time. It inspired him to fly politicians and other decision makers, so they could be better informed on how their policies affect the environment. He said he became discouraged because nothing changed. That’s when he decided to fly students.
From an aerial perspective, the Colorado River looks like veins cursing through the thirsty body of the arid West.Photo: Peter McBride
It provides water for 30 million people, and is allocated for agriculture, the energy extraction industry, and domestic use. What’s left provides habitat to rapidly disappearing populations of fish and birds.
After flowing to meet the Gulf for six million years, the Colorado River no longer reaches its delta. It hasn’t since 1998.
The veins are drying up, and it’s leaving a strong battle in its wake.
Unfortunately, it’s often the oppressed communities that suffer the most from environmental exploitation. And with native populations, the story is all too common.
“I taste oil in the river by my school,” said Leo, a 14-year-old Navajo boy who spoke to us for hours about his love of running and basketball, his culture, and what it’s like to have a parent work at the coal plant.
We toured the Four Corners coal processing plant. A fellow student asked Nathan, our tour guide and a Navajo, what he thought about the future of coal. “We need to transition to renewables,” he said. And that it was just a matter of time before the plants were shut down.
The plant operates 24 hours a day sending its electricity to Las Vegas, San Francisco and New Mexico. It uses water to cool the potash (coal waste) that it gets from the San Juan river.Photo: Peter McBride
The pro-coal argument rests largely on the claim that the industry provides jobs. I do not see how the business of turning life (habitat destroyed by machinery, water use and waste) into death (clean coal is a myth. Can we move on, please?) and destruction of communities—physically and spiritually—could be a viable option for jobs.
A day later we toured the Glen Canyon Dam near the city of Paige, Arizona. From the air the bridge looks like a popsicle stick laid down to create a bridge across a puny puddle.
Standing on it, and looking down over the drop off, I realized just what an immense engineering feat this is. Started in 1956, the concrete poured continuously for months on end to ensure no breaks or cracks.
Our tour guide came from a farming family and started working as an engineer for the dam from the beginning. He answers our practical questions then leaves us with our next speaker, a woman intimately familiar with the area.
Joan Mayer started working for the National Park Service after a trip through the national parks as a kid. She starts by making a joke about how we all drink dinosaur pee.
She has my attention, and her point is that all the water on planet earth is recycled. Behind her is Lake Powell—a reservoir created by the dam and a popular recreation spot. In it live what remain of fish such as the Humpback Chub, prehistoric looking creatures going extinct as a result of the dam.
“I take kids out to look at dinosaur fossils and get them excited about learning.” She speaks to the archeology lost from the construction. It is clear that she’s passionate and conflicted about water allocation.
When she finishes, Glen Canyon Institute advocates to us for the drainage of Lake Powell. They believe their mission will achieve a more dependable and sustainable water supply, in addition to alleviating suffering of the wildlife and ecosystem.
They’re not the only group we meet who argue along the lines of a restoration movement.
The Thompson Divide Coalition, the Roaring Fork Conservancy and the San Juan Citizens alliance all are rooted in efforts to conserve local lands and water for future generations.
The Thompson Divide Coalition is competing with the oil and gas industry to buy local lands to conserve them. They believe that the long term economic gains based on hunting and fishing are more valuable—both intrinsically and economically—than the quick and dirty energy extraction that will leave the land devastated.
The day before last, I am tired. And grateful for our lunch stop. We’re eating 45 minutes from Steamboat in Craig, Colorado. I’m sitting under a mounted Rhino head, and across from Luke Schafer of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.
Luke has the stature of a huntsman, and an uncharacteristically timid voice. I’m enthralled with his every word because is he very intelligently breaking down my stereotypes of hunters and exposing me to the hunters perspective on land conservation. He advocates for a respectable balance between energy needs and the importance of protecting our land, air, water,and wildlife. It’s obvious that growing up hunting and breaking bones in the hills of his backyard have shaped a thoughtful, unique individual. He inspired me to be more conscious of boxing people in because of a cursory judgment that may blind me to what they believe in their core.
We concluded with a presentation at Aspen High School. During a slide show produced by Peter McBride of National Geographic, I began to cry. Seeing the before and after photos of areas that have been fished in for generations now barren—one spot even had an old wooden boat sitting on top of what is now desert—felt immensely sad.
I think as a culture we’re so used to thinking about issues in terms of facts and figures that we forget that loss of water and land means loss of ways of being and generational wisdom and culture.
I was surprised at how much of an effect Western settlement has had on the Colorado River for the worse, and how rapidly it occurred compared to the geological processes that shaped everything over millions of years.
When I heard that the Colorado River no longer meets its delta after flowing there for six million years, I knew I couldn’t go back to beautiful Boulder and forget anything I had learned. Because the simplest observation was also the most confounding. The threads of water—startlingly precious from the air—reveal just how dry and vast the Southwest is. The life we experience every day depends on them to keep whipping and weaving against the rich, red rocks. And they connect us all.Photo: Peter McBride
I was motivated to take this trip because I believe that knowledge is power, and in forming alliances with people we can only strengthen our ability to build in new, and caring directions.
I don’t have any hard, fast answers as to the specifics of how the Colorado River should be allocated between all the demands we place on it.
I do know this: We cannot afford to ignore perspectives based on stereotypes, preconceived notions, ignorant judgment, hate, oppression and entitlement. We are too vulnerable to not be working across all tables, and listening to achieve smart and realistic solutions for the problems threatening peril for our families and home.
Floating above the numbers, facts, and speculations of the water crisis, I gaze wide-eyed, and enthralled at what used to be an ancient sea. Past the knowledge of the cataclysmic events that gave birth to these mountainous wonders, I breathe, and give in to marvel.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger